". . . A challenge to lift us into a future of unlimited promise, an endless horizon lit by the star of freedom guiding America to supremacy . . ." You can almost feel your shoes lifting you up and carrying you back to Kansas.
There was something wonderfully incongruous about the president's Tuesday night tax reform speech, which featured this and other rhetorical gems. Here he was, reaching dizzying heights of patriotic fancy -- for a tax plan. One might have expected "a great historic effort to give the words freedom, fairness and hope new meaning and power," to entail something grander than a change in the size of the tax refund.
Not many politicians can get away with this kind of rhetoric. The president can because, well, who else could make an address about, among other things, the deduction for intangible drilling costs and make it soar? Ronald Reagan's speeches are, in a sense, the means by which he conducts his presidency. You could write its history from the speeches: from the first inaugural address to the great 1981 tax-cut speech to Central America, Lebanon- Grenada and the second inaugural.
And now, tax reform or, as the president would have it, the second American Revolution. This speech, though by no means his best, deals with the issues closest to his heart, free markets and taxes. It is thus unusually revealing.
It contains the two classic elements of the Reagan speech: a dazzling vision of America's destiny -- the city on a hill, here "the star of freedom" -- and a curiously pinched vision of what it takes to get there.
This is not the first time that the president offers great things for minimal exertion. The president's promises and his proposed means for realizing them are often miles apart. He proposes to cut the budget deficit ("a rendezvous with history . . . our future hangs in the balance") -- with $56 billion cut from a $200 billion deficit. He proposes to establish the centerpiece of our strategic arsenal ("a message of American resolve to the world") -- with 100, now 50 MX missiles. He proposes to overthrow the Sandinistas (through the contras, "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers") -- with $14 million. (Americans spend that on Cabbage Patch dolls every nine days.) Some of these reduced means, admittedly, have been forced on Reagan by Congress. But afterward, the rhetoric is never recut to fit the compromise.
Now the president is selling a tax plan. "It will replace the politics of envy with a spirit of partnership." Okay. I'll buy it. How much does it cost?
Nothing. The country is running a $200 billion deficit and will soon be an unimaginable $2 trillion in debt, and the president is selling tax reform as a tax cut. Something for everyone. "Will our proposal help you" -- individuals, families, entrepreneurs? "You bet it will." It seems that everyone will enjoy lower taxes. Everyone, that is, except a few big fat companies, probably Pentagon contractors, who ought to be in jail anyway. "There is one group of losers in our tax plan," says the president. Those "not paying their fair share." Is there a lobbyist -- is there an American -- who thinks he belongs to that group? The problem with the appeal to painless patriotism, however, is not just what it ultimately will do to the economy, but what it does to citizenship. The most pointed criticism of "Opportunity Society" conservatism is that it is so undemanding. It asks not what you can do for your country. It asks, as Richard Nixon put it in his second inaugural address, "what I can do for myself."
The rhetoric of tax reform insists it is a free lunch for just about everyone. (The reality is different, but reality comes later.) So it was for tax cuts and the defense buildup. These are, of course, borrowed lunches. The cost will be not just the price of paying them off (with interest), but the loss of some civic habits, such as duty and sacrifice. Neoliberals, such as Gary Hart, who are bucking the tide and trying to bring back such unfashionable ideas (they favor, for example, universal national service), are having to tread carefully, lest in the current climate they be tarred as dour malaise-mongers.
Who needs the idea of sacrifice? We do. The Opportunity Society can take you only so far. Its vision of people engaged in unfettered self-betterment is a happy and very American vision. But a partial vision only. The pursuit of private interests leads to general harmony only when things are going well. When the economy is expanding all private interests can be accommodated. That is why the Opportunity Society depends so desperately on economic growth. If growth should stop, even temporarily, a society that lives exclusively on the idea of self will experience intolerable strains. What will hold it together?
Since no one is going to abolish the business cycle, that day will come sooner or later. Even the Opportunity Society will then have to appeal to feelings of community and solidarity. By then who will remember what they mean?