Trivializing the complex, Ronald Reagan can offer a troubled nation nothing better than the Blame Game. In the final weeks before the elections, his prime strategy is the politics of blame.
At a Republican rally in Virginia the other day, Reagan again charged that "America went backward" during the four years of the Carter administration and that this period "marked the culmination of decades of overindulgence by the liberal Washington establishment."
This strategy -- half of it an appeal to voter disillusion, the other half to safe populism -- is plagiarized from the political text of Jimmy Carter, whom Reagan cites as one of the worst mess-makers around. Carter came to power as an outsider who didn't need, and didn't like, the liberal Washington establishment. Carter, stoking the public's disillusion with politics, sought to project his "character" as a fit icon for voter appeal. Reagan caters that way, too, except in place of character he has substituted personality. Carter was President Good Man, Reagan is President Nice Guy.
The mesmeric appeal of Carter's goodness quickly flattened out, as is now happening with Reagan's niceness. Moreover, the public has tired of hearing from presidents eager to lead the anti-establishment establishment.
Reagan's intellectual laziness has been well documented, but his current campaign of blaming the liberal's "overindulgence" involves distortions and deceits that go beyond a president's fondness for long mental naps.
The largest contradiction in Reagan's claims involves an overindulgence of his own: his pressing for a record $1.5 trillion in the next five years on military spending. What is seen by Reagan as rescuing the military's health is actually leading to the economy's sickness.
A new study by Employment Research Associates, an independent Lansing, Mich., firm that analyzes the economics of military spending, reports that high unemployment and high defense budgets are not mere coincidences.
"Seventy percent of the U.S. public live in states which suffer a net loss of jobs every time the military budget goes up," the report states. Why? "Because military production has become technically very complex, it involves large amounts of expensive raw materials and even more expensive equipment. Therefore, less of the money spent goes toward hiring people and more toward buying high-priced equipment than when the money is spent on civilian purchases."
Reagan is right to blame his predecessors for some measure of the current collapsing economy. But not because they overindulged in programs that fed, housed and educated people. They are blameworthy for the excesses that Reagan is now repeating and adding to with his own flourishes: the passing of immense military budgets with little public discussion of the correspondingly immense losses in jobs and productivity.
If individuals are hurt, so are whole cities. A second report from Employment Research Associates offers details on how 176 out of 266 metropolitan areas suffer net losses in what is paid the Pentagon through taxes and what comes back through military contracts and salaries. "For the 176 metropolitan areas, the Pentagon budget is an immediate and direct threat to their economic and political well-being."
In "Bankrupting American Cities," the authors state a truth that ought to accompany every press release from a congressman announcing a new military contract for the home district: "The federal government acts as a giant syphon funneling tax money out of 176 metropolitan areas into those which have large military bases or very high military contracts."
A few liberals in Congress have been saying in general terms what the report spells out in specifics. But in Richmond, Reagan, neither mentioning his military budget nor the relationship between it and the economy, went off on another familiar tangent by blaming government regulations for adding "untold billions in new costs."
It's hard to believe that Reagan still thinks that citizens resent regulatory costs. In 1981, the Opinion Research Corp. reported that "the majority of most segments of society still believes that regulatory expenditures are worth it . . . Furthermore, almost two-thirds of the public believe it is necessary to pursue high standards for the protection of consumer interests regardless of the costs involved."
Liberals, in their fallen but not yet extinct state, have much to be blamed for in American society. But excessive military spending and regulatory reform are not among their mistakes. For Reagan to keep pressing his obsession may turn out to be one of his own worst mistakes.