The definition of the Yiddish word chutzpa, meaning outrageous gall, is given best in the anecdote of the man who, having killed his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. If there is a political version of that, it has to be a president who, after submitting a budget with a deficit of about $180 billion, asks for a constitutional amendment to require balanced budgets. Ronald Reagan may not know how to pronounce it, but he is the living embodiment of chutzpa.
This is a wonderous thing to behold. Here is the president of the United States, a conservative Republican, submitting his own budget and taking no responsibility for it. Here is a man who, after campaigning his entire political life against budget deficits, submits a budget with the largest deficit in American history and blames it all on the Democrats in Congress. It takes your breath away.
You will remember that this was not supposed to happen. Back in Reagan's halcyon days, when talk was cheap and theory need not be supported by facts, his election to the presidency was supposed to result, after a while, in no budget deficit at all. First it would reduced and then it would be eliminated. Instead, something else has happened. The deficit has grown. Something must have gone wrong.
You can, if you want, consult with your favorite economist to find out what the latest revealed truth is about deficits, whether they really matter or they don't. Liberals used to think they hardly mattered at all; conservatives thought they mattered a lot. Since the liberals usually had the votes, the nation usually had deficits. It also often had a booming economy. The fact remains, though, that the country is scared to death of deficits. This is in no small part due to Ronald Wilson Reagan, who campaigned against deficits and who vowed that once he got into office, there would be no more of them.
This would happen because of the miracle called supply-side economics. You could cut the taxes and this would so spur the economy that the deficit, like all the plagues of history, would disappear. Inflation would be reduced and with it interest rates and, in short order, everything would be hunky-dory. All the world would be one vast Santa Barbara and one reason this would happen is that the reduction and then elimination of deficits would prove to both the public and the financial markets that the economy, at long last, was under control.
This did not happen. Instead, the economy hit the skids. Inflation plummeted, but so did just about everything else, just as the critics of supply-side economics predicted. Why that happened and whether it was really the fault of President Reagan (whether anyone could have done better) does not really matter. What does matter is that none of this was supposed to happen--most particularly the enormous deficit.
In fact, the deficit is the standard by which Reagan can be measured. If he were not president--if, say, he were still hitting the old lecture circuit and doing his radio show--he would be lambasting the current president for the deficit. He would be holding that person accountable for it, saying the deficit was driving up interest rates, causing bankruptcies and thus delaying the economic recovery.
Liberal Democrats might say that Reagan never stood a chance of balancing the budget and, in some ways, it's almost unfair to hold a man responsible for failing to implement a policy that could not work in the first place. But what matters is that on this one issue alone, Ronald Reagan can be measured by his own standards. And he has failed. He not only failed to reduce the federal deficit, he has presided over the largest one in American history. An ordinary man would be chagrined by this, either concluding that his theory was wrong in the first place or he was incompetent in applying it.
Not Ronald Reagan, though. With boundless optimism he sticks to his theory and with the magic of a speech ignores the fact that he has been president for more than a year. What works, he will take credit for. What does not work, is someone else's baby. This, many will say, is consummate politics. It is more than that, though. It is consummate chutzpa.