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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."