The Triumph of Politics : WHY THE REAGAN REVOLUTION FAILED <i> by David Stockman (Harper & Row: $21.95; 422 pp.)</i>
David Stockman lives in a world of blacks and whites. There are no shades of gray, there is no room for doubt. His world has room for only two kinds of people--good guys and (mostly) bad guys.
It’s easy to tell them apart. Stockman’s bad guys want a government program to benefit every narrow, selfish interest. His good guys want to keep the government out of private enterprise. The bad guys seek “socialist wealth redistribution”; the good guys favor “capitalist wealth creation.”
Stockman’s is the oversimplified world of an ideologue. And his eagerly awaited book recounts the collision of his world with the real world, a place with many shades of gray, where government is responsible for good as well as ill, where a host of legitimate interests clash. In that collision, Stockman’s vision is obliterated.
Along the way, Stockman provides a lot of valuable history about the watershed year of 1981, when Congress enacted the most massive tax cut ever but, by shrinking back from corresponding spending cuts, brought the federal deficit to levels never before seen. He offers entertaining descriptions of the Reagan Administration in action--"the gang that couldn’t cut straight"--and revealing portraits of those he worked with.
Not every reader will hang on each twist and turn over whether the Defense Department should spend $1.33 trillion or $1.46 trillion in the next five years. But Stockman tells his tale in vivid and clear prose, and you do not need to understand double-entry bookkeeping to appreciate his account of how Republicans as well as Democrats, the Reagan Cabinet as well as the special interests, have a stake in preserving the mass of government programs that Stockman finds so loathsome.
For a green-eyeshades type, Stockman displays a sharp and often self-deprecating sense of humor. He has a wonderful time recalling how Secretary of State Alexander Haig sabotaged his proposed cuts in the State Department budget. Haig, after packing one White House budget meeting with dozens of State Department staffers, walked into the meeting room and exclaimed: “I can’t make decisions in a roomful of people. There are 40 people here. I don’t know who they are!”
“It was surreal,” Stockman recounts. “They were his people--he had brought them. . . . Not surprisingly, the meeting broke up without having produced any results.”
But what the book will mostly be remembered for is Stockman’s contempt for almost everybody he worked with. Reagan’s closest advisers “lived off the tube. They understood nothing about the serious ideas underlying the Reagan Revolution.” The Cabinet was populated with the likes of Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, a yes-man for the President whose first concern was protecting his tax-policy turf, and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, little more than a “salesman” for more military spending.
Even Stockman’s supply-side allies resorted to “crackpot” ideas to combat the massive deficits; Rep. Jack Kemp became a “misguided scribbler.” And Stockman has scarcely any patience at all for congressional Democrats. He ridicules Tip O’Neill’s “scarlet, varicose nose” and labels Jim Wright a “snake oil vendor.”
Stockman’s most telling portrayal--though far from his most vicious--is of the President himself. The budget director portrays his boss as a sweet old man, too shallow to comprehend what Stockman insists on calling the “Reagan Revolution,” too politically sensitive to slash programs that benefit special interests.
Reagan thinks in anecdotes, not concepts, Stockman writes; and Stockman’s own Reagan anecdotes are stunning. In one from late 1981, the President concludes--in direct contradiction to what Stockman has just told him--that substantial savings can be realized by trimming the size of the bureaucracy. Reagan then resorts to an experience as California governor, when he discovered that the vehicle registration department kept records in file cabinets only half as wide as the records. Stockman, who presumably took good notes, quotes Reagan as saying:
“ ‘So they had people standing there all day doing this.’ He folded a piece of paper double and held it up.
“ ‘One of our people found out you didn’t have to do this. We just ordered new metal cabinets which were twice as wide, so the records would fit without folding. It saved thousands of work-hours. This,’ the President concluded, ‘is the kind of thing that management can accomplish.’ ”
No wonder the Reagan Revolution never had a chance.
But damning as Stockman’s account may be, it is also unseemly in the extreme. Here we have the budget director, who even now is only 39 years old, trading on his private conversations with his boss to make fun of him. Stockman received a $2-million advance from Harper & Row, and maybe he felt only some juicy tales would justify that enormous sum. But as Jimmy Carter learned in 1980, it doesn’t always pay to criticize Ronald Reagan.
Perhaps unintentionally, Stockman tells us far more about himself than about anyone else: about a young extremist who swung from the left to the right and pursued each with equal zeal; about a whiz kid in the White House who cynically manipulated budget numbers and public opinion to his own ends; about a failed revolutionary who concedes he made tactical mistakes but not that his ideology might be flawed.
Stockman calls his book “The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed.” But if Stockman’s account is correct, his title is a misnomer. As he describes it, the “Reagan Revolution” was more like an attempted coup d’etat by a budget director bent on remaking the government according to his own--but not necessarily his President’s--ideology. “A drastic shrinking of the welfare state was not his conception of the Reagan Revolution,” he writes. “It was mine.”
For all of Reagan’s rhetorical commitment to a smaller government, he consistently backed off when push came to shove. Late in 1982, Stockman divided spending into about 50 categories and gave Reagan a choice of three spending levels, ranging from nicks to whacks. He chose mostly nicks.
The next spring, Reagan threatened to veto spending bills that exceeded his 1984 budget but vetoed not a one, even though the bills busted his budget by a total of $10 billion. He even signed the Interior Department appropriation, which included 25% more than he asked for. Stockman’s explanation: Reagan had just appointed William Clark, one of his close advisers (and an advocate of the veto strategy) to be interior secretary and didn’t want to leave him without a spending bill on the books.
Altogether, the Reagan Revolution notwithstanding, nondefense spending actually rose by 11% from 1981 to 1985. Even when interest on the rapidly rising debt is excluded, spending grew by 5%. To be sure, Reagan engineered some major cuts, such as the elimination of public service jobs under CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act). But for every program that was killed or slashed, many others flourished--notably Social Security, which Reagan declared off limits to cuts after a 1981 proposal triggered a political firestorm.
Stockman pronounces a host of mea culpas to account for the revolution’s failure. He takes almost boastful responsibility for whipping up the wildly optimistic economic projection that was used to justify the 1981 tax cut. He says he failed to gauge the full magnitude of spending that Weinberger’s military buildup would require.
Not only did Stockman generally fail to keep Reagan informed of the deteriorating budget situation, but when he tried to make amends, he could not bring himself to tell the President that his own policies were responsible. At one such briefing, he quotes Reagan as exclaiming that if what he is hearing is correct, then Tip O’Neill must have been right all along about the budgetary impact of his tax and spending policies. “Mr. President, oh no,” Stockman quotes himself as replying. “I’m not saying that at all. Not in the slightest.” With that kind of coaching, Reagan readily submitted to his instincts and looked for a burst of economic growth that would trigger a windfall of tax revenue and make Stockman’s painful spending cuts unnecessary.
Stockman pleads guilty to the charge of “ideological hubris,” which he defines as “the assumption that the world can be made better by being remade overnight. . . . It can’t be done. It shouldn’t have been tried.”
But to Stockman, it shouldn’t have been tried only because it didn’t work. Congress delivered only half a revolution--tax cuts but not offsetting spending cuts--and Stockman remains convinced--despite growing evidence to the contrary--that the resulting string of deficits will one day cause economic catastrophe.
What Stockman refuses to concede is that his revolution might have been misguided. To Stockman, Social Security represents “closet socialism” because workers draw more out of the system than they have contributed to it; never mind that it has contributed mightily to cutting the elderly poverty rate in half in the last two decades. To Stockman, fairness means cutting off welfare for the “ablebodied poor”; never mind that capitalism has rarely been able to provide work for everybody who wants it.
The world is a far more complicated place than Stockman, even the repentant Stockman, is willing to acknowledge. Never does he question the virtues of unfettered capitalism. Never does he wonder whether the government, for all its bureaucratic bungling and obviously wasteful programs, may actually do some good.