Amid the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in Republican circles these days, and the breathless anticipation of November by the Democrats, an important fact is being ignored: Reaganomics has not failed. Reaganomics is simply a fiction transmitted to us with unblinking innocence by the nation's media.
And that's show biz. If Steven Spielberg can make adults teary-eyed at the sight of flying bicycles, then Ronald Reagan can make otherwise intelligent people believe he is going to reduce the size of government. Americans are suckers for a good story, and very few people can spin a tale the way this former actor-turned-president can.
This is not a frivolous point. Early in his political career Ronald Reagan discovered that he had a unique talent for reaching people. He can project sincerity, honesty and integrity, which, when combined with an anti-government message, strikes a remarkably responsive chord with the voters.
The problem is that Reagan the politician uses ideology as a vehicle for returning to center stage. He does not -- and here's where most observers go wrong -- use his acting ability to advance a deeply imbued ideology.
"As a legacy from his Irish shoe-salesman father," writes Bill Boyarsky in his recent biography of Reagan, he "inherited brashness and the love of making a speech for a cause. Sometimes the speech was more important than the cause. . . ."
That the myth of Ronald Reagan the ideologue persists is a tribute to his speech-making ability. He's latched on to a script that clearly plays in Peoria. The rub is, he doesn't mean it.
Ronald Reagan is actually quite like most politicians. He seeks elective office for the reason other men climb mountains: because it is there. When you hear him give a speech on the stump, it may be hard to believe that he really isn't committed to what he is saying, but the plain truth is that he isn't.
This is not the most ideological administration in generations, as portrayed by the media. On the contrary, this is a non-ideological administration. The mass exodus of those even mildly ideological in the administration before midterm should be evidence enough.
Ronald Reagan's record as governor of California only confirms what we're seeing today in his presidency. His stirring campaign speeches called for reducing the burden on California's taxpayers, but were matched by eight years of the most rapid growth (in real terms) of government spending and taxes in the state's history.
And it is precisely because the president is not viscerally committed to any set of political principles that his performance as president will parallel his performance as governor. When you are a chief executive of a government and you are more interested in doing a "good" job than in defining what the objectives of the job are, you surround yourself -- as Reagan does -- with "competent" and "experienced" administrative aides.
In a commercial business, this sort of policy makes sense. The federal government, however, is not a business. It is an expression of the political philosophy of the people of this nation. The Reagan campaign rhetoric that the people endorsed (saber-rattling aside) was to reduce the size and power of government.
But as Reagan's track record consistently demonstrates, the campaign rhetoric was just that -- rhetoric. So we should not be suprised to find that when the experienced government professionals appointed by the president undertake their assignments, it is with bureaucratic rather than ideological goals in mind. That's the nature of government today. Its tendency is to grow, and it is the non-ideological "experts" who facilitate that growth.
Hence, the explicit campaign pledge to abolish the departments of Education and Energy turns out to be nothing more than a reshuffling and renaming exercise. The rhetorical resonance of the incompatibility of liberty and the draft yields to the practicality of sending the Russians a "message." Freeing the economy of excessive red tape translates into the re-regulation of transportation and more red tape.
And so it goes. A commitment to free enterprise is actually a commitment to protectionism and business subsidies. Balancing the budget is a popular idea that manifests itself as the largest deficit ever. And the greatest tax cut in the history of this nation becomes the greatest tax increase in history "because it is right for America."
The pity is that Ronald Reagan had a genuine mandate to turn his small-government rhetoric into reality. Strong presidents don't even need a mandate. Lyndon Johnson, whose only "mandate" was to keep us out of the war Goldwater might get us into, not only turned Vietnam into a full-fledged war, but he also created the massive Great Society welfare boondoggle at the behest of not much more than bureaucrats and sociologists. With Johnson's skill and, more important, commitment, Reagan could have rapidly and dramatically rolled back the size of government.
But, of course, it's 1982, and taxes are not lower, federal spending is at an all-time high, and government itself continues on its meddlesome way regulating everything from natural gas to marijuana use. The irony is that the media have been so captivated by the form of Ronald Reagan's performance they have completely overlooked its lack of substance.
In a perhaps inadvertent moment of candor Monday night, the president told the nation that his $100 billion tax increase "absolutely does not represent any reversal of policy or philosophy on the part of this administration, or this president." Which is true, of course.
Reaganomics isn't a failure. Reaganomics isn't.