One of the strange aspects of the race for the Republican nomination is that many of the candidates seem to be running to be elected as the next Ronald Reagan while sounding so little like the man who was once called The Great Communicator.
Last night was no different. At least three of the candidates mentioned former president Reagan by name. But not one of them quoted him. It seems that campaign consultants and perhaps the candidates themselves have concluded that part of being Reagan is maintaining a sunny disposition about our economic prosperity—the greatest story ever told, as some like to say. But Reagan didn’t get elected on the greatest story never told. His economic policy was to reduce inflation, cut taxes and cut wasteful and fraudulent government spending.
A closer look at Republican rhetoric versus Reagan reality after the jump.
Let’s take Fred Thompson’s first remarks in the debate in Dearborn, Michigan. Maria Bartiromo asked him about the possibility of a recession and Thompson announced that “there is no reason to believe we’re headed for a recession.”
No reason at all? At least he might have acknowledged that there is a chance we are headed for a recession. But he didn’t. Instead he told the audience in the state with the nation’s highest unemployment that “We’re enjoying 22 quarters of successive economic growth.” And everyone knows that you can’t have a recession after years of growth, right? Right? Past performance totally predicts future results in the economy.
Contrast this with Reagan’s remarks in a League of Women Voters debate with President Jimmy Cater that took place in late 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio. When questioned how his economic policy could be used to fight inflation, Regan did not hesitate to go to the heart of the matter—inflating the money supply to keep up with out of control government spending—and to point out that government spending was more inflationary than individual spending (because it puts pressure on the organs of government—namely the Fed—to tolerate more inflation to avoid a government crisis).
“Yes, you can lick inflation by increasing productivity and by decreasing the cost of Government to the place that we have balanced budgets and are no longer grinding out printing press money, flooding the market with it because the Government is spending more than it takes in. And my economic plan calls for that,” Reagan said. “The President's economic plan calls for increasing the taxes to the point that we finally take so much money away from the people that we can balance the budget in that way. But we'll have a very poor nation and a very unsound economy if we follow that path.”
Thompson did mention spending but his answer failed to draw a distinction between government spending and private spending. He might have meant to attack government spending, but he didn’t name the spender. He just railed against spending. Reagan named the culprits: government spending and government tax policies that encourage spending rather than saving.
Now, obviously there are important differences in the situation of the candidates. Inflation had become obvious, and undeniable when Reagan was running. Many of the statistical sleight of hand tricks now used to reduce the inflation rate had yet to be invented. He was running against an incumbent, instead of trying to get nominated as the representative of the incumbent president’s party.
But if the Republicans are unwilling to repudiate the taxing and spending legacy of the last few years in favor of deeper tax cuts, spending cuts and a tighter monetary policy, this simply points to the fact that Reagan is not their model. They are not running against a legacy of failure but trying to conceal the failures of their party’s leader behind sunny rhetoric. They aren’t running as the next Reagan at all. They are running as the next George Bush I.
One candidate on stage did sound like Reagan in his calls for tax cuts and sound money. But he’s supposedly a minor candidate, barely worth mentioning. Some even think the debate would have been better had he been excluded. No doubt they would have said the same things about Ronald Reagan in the 1970s.
But, at the very least, we’re had enough with the Reagan act. We never met the man. But we remember him. His speeches and policies are available to anyone with access to Google. And it only takes a bit of reading in the record to discover that those “major” Republican candidates are no Ronald Reagan.
Transcript of the Republican Debate [Wall Street Journal]