Opinion

Think you know the Reagan and Bush era? Think again.

Political events in the era of Presidents Reagan and Bush senior have great relevance to today, from budget cuts ('sequestration') to President Obama's agenda. But this history is often remembered incorrectly, or not at all – to the detriment of America's political discourse.

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    President Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office, issued by Chief Justice Warren Burger, in the US Capitol as Nancy Reagan holds the Bible on Jan. 20, 1985. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'As far back as the Reagan-Bush years,' leaders of the Republican party 'acknowledged that the party had to do better among minorities....Though always well-intentioned and often well-financed, these efforts invariably failed.'
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The era of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush is the no-man’s land of historical memory – and America’s political discourse is all the poorer for it.

The political events of those years (roughly late 1970s to early 1990s) have great relevance to the issues of today, from budget cuts (“sequestration”) to President Obama’s agenda. But this history is too recent for most adults to have studied it in school and too distant to be part of the firsthand experience of many politicians.

President Obama, for instance, had just started college when Reagan announced his candidacy in late 1979, and had only recently finished law school when President Bush left office in early 1993. He did not launch his own political career until 1996.

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The memory gap is unfortunate. Between the history books and the news feeds is an undiscovered country full of fascinating stories that foreshadow today’s issues. As a quick look at this historical chapter will show, some of today’s “new ideas” date back to the time when “Family Ties” was must-see TV.

Consider sequestration, for instance. Reporting how automatic budget cuts became law, Bob Woodward recently wrote in The Washington Post: “Key Republican staffers said they didn’t even initially know what a sequester was – because the concept stemmed from the budget wars of the 1980s, when they were not in government.”

Mr. Woodward was referring to the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act for a balanced budget. The law provided for automatic spending cuts – and they turned out to be steep ones – if the deficit topped certain targets. The act was a response to growing budget shortfalls stemming from lower taxes and higher defense spending. One version passed in 1985, and after the Supreme Court struck it down, Congress passed a revision in 1987.

Gramm-Rudman-Hollings had only a limited direct impact on the deficit. But it led to some important plot twists in the saga of fiscal policy.

At first, Republicans applauded the measure as a way to curb spending. But in 1990, the prospect of big across-the-board cuts prompted President Bush to break his “no new taxes” pledge. After he lost the 1992 election, it became Republican conventional wisdom that his loss stemmed from the tax reversal. That belief, in turn, hardened GOP opposition to tax increases. Whereas Reagan had actually agreed to several tax hikes starting in 1982, the post-Bush Republicans have been far more resistant.

Bush’s budget struggles show how quickly circumstances can change.

Initially, some lawmakers were willing to accept huge across-the-board cuts in defense because the cold war was ending. But in the summer of 1990, shortly after Bush gave in to a tax increase, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The Gulf War, now just months away, would prove to be a massive undertaking, and sequestration would have made it much harder. This example should give pause to those who are shrugging their shoulders at the current round of defense cuts. History is a tale of expensive surprises.

Mr. Obama knows that the first President Bush eventually ran into political trouble, so he seems to be drawing inspiration from President Reagan instead. In spite of obvious ideological differences, he has expressed admiration for Reagan’s rhetorical skills, and has tried to use the Reagan strategy of going over lawmakers’ heads to appeal directly to the public.

But he may be overestimating the Gipper’s impact. Although Reagan did give wonderful speeches on television, he was not all that successful at transforming public opinion. True, he did manage to rally Americans behind his 1981 economic program. But its centerpiece was a big tax cut, which had a natural constituency. When it came to tougher policy choices, such as aid to Nicaraguan rebels, he faced greater sales resistance.

Unable to win the Nicaragua fight in the political arena, Reagan administration officials resorted to subterfuge and unilateral action by the executive branch. The result was the Iran-Contra scandal – selling arms to Iran to release American hostages and fund Contra forces fighting the Marxist government of Nicaragua.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has not yet produced anything comparable. But administration officials have come under criticism for lacking transparency and boldly asserting executive power. Iran-Contra should serve as a warning to them that these things can quickly get out of hand.

A very different set of historical lessons involves party politics. The Republican National Committee recently announced a project to reach out to Hispanics, Asian Americans, and African Americans. Mitt Romney fared poorly with these groups last year, and many commentators have praised the RNC for its willingness to confront the party’s political weaknesses.

There’s just one problem. As far back as the Reagan-Bush years, RNC chairmen acknowledged that the party had to do better among minorities. To great fanfare, they repeatedly started “outreach” initiatives. Though always well-intentioned and often well-financed, these efforts invariably failed.

The RNC had no real power over elected officials, who usually took positions that were unpopular among the groups that the committee was trying to court. And the RNC itself made matters worse with a “ballot security” program. Its announced intention was to prevent voter fraud, just as with today's Voter ID efforts, but because many Hispanics and Americans saw it as a ploy to keep them from voting, it obliterated any good that the outreach efforts might have accomplished.

Reince Priebus, the current RNC chair, was only 10 years old when legal action halted the ballot-security program. Because neither he nor most other people at party headquarters were there during this era, they might make an extra effort to discover what it can teach them.

In fact, that’s good advice for just about everybody in Washington.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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