Reagan's Failed Sell Of Government As Too Big

Here's a history lesson from the fall of 1973: it's been very, very hard for the right to bamboozle the country into agreeing with them that big government is bad for their well-being. Their progress has been halting, fragile, and easily reversed.

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Here's a history lesson from the fall of 1973: it's been very, very hard for the right to bamboozle the country into agreeing with them that big government is bad for their well-being. Their progress has been halting, fragile, and easily reversed. Because, of course, it is not bad for their well-being—it is imperative—for really, people are not all that stupid. But they keep trying, and they will keep trying, with far too many assists from people in our own beloved and benighted Democratic Party—because weakening government is all too good for the well-being of powerful interests that, well, are not good for the the well-being of the country at all.

In 1973 Ronald Reagan got really got serious for the first time about running for President. His vehicle, Team Reagan decided, would be a ballot initiative designed to show the world that the people of California agreed with their governor: government wasn't the solution to our problems. Government was the problem. Then, once the ballot initiative passed, he would barnstorm the country selling the idea to other states, and be hailed as a hero.

The idea was born because that year, some bad accounting and an improving economy had left the state of California with a nearly $1 billion fiscal surplus. Reagan's announced intention was to "return the money to taxpayers," writing into the California constitution a cap on both taxes and government spending.
The architects included an economist named Milton Friedman and his gubernatorial chief of staff Edwin Meese—appropriate names, because in every respect "Propostion 1" was a perfect template for a generation of conservative movement appeals to follow that—well, let's quote Ronald Reagan himself:

"Are we automatically destined to tax and spend, spend and tax indefinitely, until the people have nothing left of their earnings for themselves? Have we abandoned or forgotten the interests and well-being of the taxpayer whose toil makes government possible in the first place? Or is he to become a pawn in a deadly game of government monopoly whose only purpose is to serve the confiscatory appetites of runaway government spending?"

Ronald Reagan put everything he had into selling Proposition 1. It was a brilliant, deeply Reaganite political performance. The leader of the anti-Proposition 1 forces, Democratic Assembly Speaker Robert Moretti, said he was in favor of lowering taxes too, just like he was "in favor of motherhood" and "against sin." He just thought turning the state Constitution into an iron corset was madness. He, too, marshaled an array of statistics to demonstrate why Proposition 1 could not do what it was intended to do, and challenged the governor to debate. Reagan refused him. Moretti explained why he thought Reagan was ducking him: because in any tax limitation program that included, as Reagan's did, an expenditure ceiling, programs would have to be cut, and "He knows he cannot answer the questions we raise as to which programs will be cut." So he challenged the governor again and again and again and again—and five times Reagan refused him.
Reagan was playing an entirely different game.

When he made statistical claims, he blithely let them contradict each another. For instance, they said his plan would create deficits. He responded it would produce $41.5 billion in 15 years in new money. But then he also stated as the plan's fundamental intention giving the state less money to spend. His critics would scratch their heads—and unveil another brace of statistics. Then he would respond with moralistic perorations, making them look like pedantic asses—which was the game he was playing: "When the advocates of bigger and bigger government manage to get their hands on an extra tax dollar or two," he would quip, "they hang on like a gila monster until they find some way to spend it."

Again, his opponents opponents threw up their hands. If Reagan wanted to cut taxes and spending, what of his last seven years as governor? California's secretary of state, who was also the son of the governor Reagan replaced in 1966 and who himself hoped to succeed him in 1974, pointed out that he'd increased both dramatically. And already had a line-item veto, which he had never effectively used. "How can a magic formula, written by invisible lawyers," Jerry Brown asked, "do what Ronald Reagan has been unwilling or unable to do?" The same services Reagan had been refusing to cut in the last seven years as governor, critics would logically observe, would suffer. Reagan would indicate the emergency fund would protect them. But then he would say he didn't even want to protect government bureaucrats anyway.
But if government employees were all money-sucking monsters, why was the state budget in surplus in the first place?

But demagoguery, it seemed, was working. On Election Eve the Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy the Greek gave Proposition 1 a three to one chance of passage.

Then came election day. Proposition 1 was crushed 54 to 46 percent. One conservative state senator said that if the governor used the same strategy to run for president, he'd "be lucky to find a plane ticket to where the convention is."

What happened? You might say the ideological conditions were not yet ripe. Just how radically those ideological conditions have changed between then and now is suggested by an extraordinary editorial on Proposition 1 that appeared in the far-off Milwaukee Journal. Entitled "Voters Smarter Than Reagan," it argued Californians' admirably "saw through the phoniness, and recognized the menace to the well-being of the commonwealth of this scheme."

Now check this out. The Milwaukee Journal continued, "the proposition had the surface appeal of the politicians' favorite, but false, homily that says government should 'live within its income like everyone else.' Government in fact is not like everyone else, but uniquely different. It alone can, and most be able to, determine the level of its own income, through the taxing power. To equate its financial situation with that of a private household is utter illogic."

I need not dwell on the fact that what a provincial newspaper late in 1973 saw as "utter illogic" is n ow the hegemonic common sense even among ostensibly liberal Democrats, and is the favorite budgetary metaphor of President Obama himself.

Now, as most of us know, a tax limitation proposal was indeed written into the California constitution, in the form of Proposition 13, five years later. I don't have time to go into the details, but the reasons Proposition 13 won were highly contingent to the entirely unique fiscal situation of California at the time, and had little to do with any universal rejection of government itself.

What did happen, however, was that conservatives quite effectively claimed Proposition 13 as a nationwide mandate for radical reduction of taxation and government. They did that, of course, in 1980 too—and had lots of success passing budgets and laws that harmonized with the claim.

But here is a very crucial point about our political moment: Ronald Reagan did not get elected because he promised to dismantle big government in America.

The statistics are compiled in the perennially useful 1986 study Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. One poll they cite from Opinion Research Corporation asked voters in 1980 whether "too much" was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare, and urban aide programs. Only 21 percent thought so, the same percentage as in 1976, 1977, and 1978, The amount saying the amount spent was either "Too little" or "about right" was never lower in those years than 72 percent. The number favoring keeping "taxes and services about where they are" was the same in 1975 and 1980—45 percent.

The pattern continued well into Reagan's presidency. In 1983 the Los Angeles Times found that only five percent of Americans found regulations "too strict," while 42 percent called them "not strong enough."
Between 1978 and 1982, according to surveys from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the number of voters who wished to "expand" rather than "cut back" not just social spending in general, but the dreaded "welfare" programs, increased by 26 percentage points.

And finally, in 1984, when Reagan's approval rating was 68 percent, only 35 percent favored cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit, which of course was their president's strenuously stated preference on the matter. 65 percent believed such cuts were imminent—and, of course, that November, well over 60 percent of them voted for Reagan instead of the Democrat Walter Mondale.

Think of those 1976-1984 public opinion statistics when you read the ones today that show the vast majority of the American public want jobs, not cuts—and for rich people and corporations to finally pay their fair share in taxes. And yet, still, somehow, the engines of austerity keep grinding on, and taxes on corporations and the rich keep getting lower, and lower, and lower. It's frustrating, baffling. Rogers and Ferguson call that "policy alignment without electoral realignment." How and why did it happen? That will have to be a topic for another time.

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