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Wish Upon A Pump

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Perusing the Sunday newspapers with plagiaristic intent, I come across an article about who's responsible for the current energy debacle. Politicians are mentioned along with the amazingly shortsighted auto executives and the oil industry itself. Names, lots of names, are dropped, everyone from the current President Bush to the previous Bush to Clinton, but not a mention of the culprit in chief, Ronald Wilson Reagan -- still, after all these years, the Teflon president.

Those of you with keen memories may recall that the energy crisis is not new. In 1977, Jimmy Carter called it the "moral equivalent of war." In the sort of speech a politician rarely delivers, he told a not-particularly-grateful nation that his energy program was going to hurt, but "a policy which does not ask for changes or sacrifices would not be an effective policy." The core of his initiative was conservation. Carter had earlier asked us to lower our thermostats and wear sweaters. He wore one himself.

Reagan, who succeeded Carter in the White House, wore only a smile. For him, there was no energy crisis. Whereas Carter had insisted that only the government could manage the energy crisis, Reagan, in his first inaugural, demanded that government get out of the way. Speaking of general economic conditions at the time, he said, "Government is not the solution to our problem." He went on to call for America to return to greatness, to "reawaken this industrial giant," and all sorts of swell things would happen. It was wonderful stuff.

To contrast the two speeches is like comparing the screeching of a cat to the miracles of Mozart. Yet today, Carter's speech reads as prescient. Most of his dire predictions -- "It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century" -- have generally come true, although not quite as soon or as calamitously as he had warned. The pity of it all is that in American politics, being right is beside the point.

It is not my intention to pummel the late Ronald Reagan for what he did or did not do back in the 1980s. It is my intention, though, to suggest that Reaganism -- to which Republicans now swear allegiance -- has outlived its very short usefulness and ought to be junked. This is not to say that government is the answer to all our ills. It is only to note that if you think the answer is private enterprise, then drive to the nearest gas station and admire the prices brought to you by private companies.

The worst part of Reaganism was its political success. It left behind a coterie of panting acolytes who learned from Reagan himself that optimism, cheerfulness, an embrace of magical thinking and the avoidance of the painful truth was the formula for victory at the polls. For a time, it worked -- the cost of gas went down -- and Carter, that scold in the silly sweater, was banished. As they say in New Orleans, "Laissez les bons temps rouler!" (Let the good times roll!) Upbeat? You bet. But not a business plan.

In "The Age of Reagan," Princeton historian Sean Wilentz posits that Reagan was the transformative president of our times. I don't know about that. But I do know that in the recent primary debates, Republican after Republican invoked Reagan the way Democrats once did Roosevelt, and they vowed, knock on wood, to be a similar kind of president. If they meant what they said, that would mean no energy plan worth its name and, worse, chirpy assurances to the American people that all would be well.

This is the doleful legacy of Reaganism. We have become a nation that believes that you can get something for nothing. We thought that the energy crisis would be solved . . . somehow, and that no one would have to suffer. We still believe in the magical qualities of America, that something about us makes us better. Yet we have a chaotic and mediocre education system that desperately needs more money and higher standards, but we think -- don't we? -- that somehow we will maintain our lifestyle anyway. Hey, is this America or what?

Somewhere in his peripatetic travels, the much-maligned Jimmy Carter -- an artless politician, to be sure -- must scratch his head at the reverence still accorded Reagan. The way things are going, the Gipper's visage will be added to Mount Rushmore. Not that anyone will notice. It'll be too expensive to drive there.

cohenr@washpost.com


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