Beyond the harsh criticisms of his former colleagues at the White House, David A. Stockman's memoir of his five years in the Reagan administration is a treatise on the "revolution" that neither his president nor Congress nor the American people wanted to carry out.
The "revolution," as Stockman saw it in the halcyon days of 1981, was to whittle down the welfare state, shut off the federal subsidies that flowed to business and agriculture, reform the huge entitlement programs that dispense benefits to millions of Americans.
But Stockman says in "The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed" that in retrospect he could not get Reagan to bring it off and he could not push Congress to do it.
"We have confronted the monster eyeball to eyeball," he said yesterday, "and decided it's not all that bad after all."
In the epilogue of the book, Stockman says he had "no choice but to resign" last year knowing that "my original ideological excesses had given rise to a fiscal and political disorder that was probably beyond correction."
"Politics had triumphed: first by blocking spending cuts and then by stopping revenue increases . . . That the politics of American democracy made a shambles of my anti-welfare state theory I can now understand," he writes.
"We have had a tumultuous national referendum on everything in our half-trillion dollar welfare state budget," he says. The result, he adds, is that the American people want "lavish Social Security benefits, wasteful dairy subsidies, futile UDAG grants, and all the remainder of the federal subventions . . ."
Stockman said in an interview yesterday that he discovered that Reagan's priorities were not the same as those he incorporated into the original blueprint, the "black books" of spending cuts he prepared in 1981.
The heart of Stockman's revolution was to rein in domestic spending, making it possible to cut taxes and increase defense spending. But when the choices did not add up to a balanced budget, many analysts say, Reagan abandoned the goal, making the tax cut and the military buildup his top priorities. The result was a deficit that Stockman spent five years in vain trying to "fix."
"When I say the revolution failed," Stockman says, "I mean the revolution as it was articulated by a small group of ideologues and academic, libertarian economists. The Reagan Revolution as it was articulated in February, March of 1981 was an economic, libertarian notion of national economic governance."
But, Stockman says, Reagan was to pursue something "different," allowing the tax cuts to go too far, and not taking a hard enough whack at spending cuts. Stockman now thinks a big mistake in 1981 was to lay the groundwork for the big income tax cut by giving the appearance of an equally large bite out of spending that, in fact, would never materialize.
"Once that half-revolution was enacted into law," he says, "the political system was helpless" to correct it, and Reagan was unable to carry out the next steps in Stockman's agenda of painful budget cuts. "What was in his plan was not what was in his mind as a political leader," he says.
Stockman's former colleagues think he has overstated the case, pointing out that the administration did win major changes in domestic spending. "Ronald Reagan has achieved more than David Stockman allows in this book," says Lawrence A. Kudlow, who was Stockman's chief economist at OMB.
Stockman describes himself in the book as a zealous soldier in the early stages of the Reagan "revolution." But today he rues the haste with which it was put together, the way events unfolded so quickly that he lost control of the what he had designed. "I pushed it to the hilt -- that was a large mistake," he says.
"The plan was fundamentally flawed . . . a longer, more thorough debate may have revealed some of that and slowed down the train before these accidents started happening and these wheels started coming off the wagon . . ."