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The Days of Wine and Reagan

Perhaps in the mistaken belief that I was alive at the time*, the American Prospect asked me to write about the question, "How did the Democrats fight Reagan on Social Security?"

I didn't know the answer, but as I looked into it, the answer was basically, those were different times and Reagan was basically an honorable man. Read the article here.

Unfortunately, it wasn't until after I'd finished writing this that I read the article from the Cato Journal in late 1983 entitled "Achieving A 'Leninist' Strategy." This is a good coda to my article, because it shows that the thinking that led us to the brink of privatization today actually began immediately after the tremendous bipartisan consensus around the Greenspan commission plan, which the article refers to as "the fiasco of the last 18 months." Almost every word out of Bush's mouth now comes from this 22-year-old article, including instructions to offer "assurance to those already retired or nearing retirement that their benefits will be paid in full," to "educate young people" that the system is doomed, and to hold out Individual Retirement Accounts as a model. It also recommends a long and patient campaign, which has certainly been the case.

The Cato Journal authors -- Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis, then both at the Heritage Foundation -- conclude "Social Security can be reformed only by treating the issue primarily as a political problem. There is little point in arguing over the nuances of theoretical plans if the political dynamics are not altered."

Later today I intend to post some thoughts on very similar thinking today on the liberal side.

*I'll admit, I was alive, but not really paying much attention.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 9, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

There's an astrisk there, but no footnote.

Posted by: David Weman | Feb 9, 2005 2:41:22 PM

Ah.

Posted by: David Weman | Feb 9, 2005 3:49:49 PM

I've read that memo before, and it really is an essential document for understanding the fight we are engaged in.

But I always have trouble getting my mind past the banal irony of Cato invoking Lenin.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 10, 2005 2:30:11 AM

Three other resources for the wayback debate:

Martha Derthick, Policymaking for Social Security (1979: Brookings) for pre-Reagan information;

Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (1986: Free Press) for details on the 1983 compromise;

John Farrell, Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century: A Biography (2001).

Posted by: Dave M | Feb 10, 2005 3:38:52 AM

"those were different times and Reagan was basically an honorable man"

On one point I disagree: Reagan was basically a dishonorable man. He had the same predilection for mendacity, faithlessness, and unprincipled self-serving rapacity that Bush manifests on a daily basis.

But I agree that there was something different in the political climate and dynamics. There were factors in place--external to Reagan's character--that kept him relatively honest, and relatively honorable, especially when judged against the moral vacuum that is the current administration.

There was the existence of a functioning Democratic party, for one, and then there was also the existence of a functioning press.

Furthermore, I think that even within the Reagan White House there was a healthier ratio of career civil servants to political hacks. The Bush gang has the "Mayberry Machiavelli" problem that De Iulio identified early in the first term--the people with a background in policy were chased out of the White House, and replaced by people with a background in orchestrating campaign dirty tricks.

What still remained within the Reagan administration--despite his being a dishonorable individual--was a generalized commitment to governing the country for the country's good.

With the Bush gang, we have moved entirely to the South American model--get into power, enrich your friends, strip all of the country's assets as fast as you can, and try to hang on to power as long as possible.

Next to Bush, even a shallow, bigoted, back-biting, two-bit ham can look like a man of honor. But it's just a trick of perspective--Reagan was not an honorable man.

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 10, 2005 9:53:56 AM

“The [Greenspan] commission . . . was one of the great success stories of modern politics.”

You are being ironical, aren’t you, Mark?

But then again, I suppose if you say that the flim-flamming of working class voters by “experts” appointed by an Ayn Rand acolyte, a Nixon protege, a catsup magnate, and a 90-year old Floridian is how modern politics works, the statement can be taken at face value.

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Posted by: ...777 | Jun 19, 2005 10:41:30 AM