Reagan and Obama: Pragmatism Ascendant

By John Tierney

The cover article in the most recent issue of Time magazine asserts that President Obama sees Ronald Reagan as a role model.  In their article, Michael Scherer and Michael Duffy examine how and why Obama finds Reagan's presidency instructive.

Over on The Atlantic Wire, Alex Eichler responded to this latest contribution to Reagan-Obama mania by putting the whole preoccupation under the "Cliché Watch" category -- a move that any sentient observer would have to agree with.  (Type "Obama and Reagan" into "search our site" bar at the top of The Atlantic's site, and you'll see how common such comparisons on The Atlantic site alone.)

Still, as someone who regularly yields to the magnetic pull of a good cliché, I can't resist adding to the pile. To me, looking back at the Reagan presidency is a good reminder of what happens to both liberals and conservatives when they come to power.  As much as the two camps may be divided from each other while campaigning for office, it's once in office that the interesting splits occur.

Much of what has been written about the parallels between Reagan and Obama focuses on the similarity of the circumstances they each faced during the first two years after being elected and their experience in that first set of midterm elections.  For example, Time's Scherer and Duffy write:

Just as Reagan's revolutionary agenda coincided with a historic recession, massive employment and a humbling defeat in the 1982 midterms, . . . Obama's new spending programs coincided with a historic recession, deep unemployment and midterms that cost the Democrats control of Congress.

These parallels are quite fascinating.  But to me, what's most interesting about looking back to the Reagan experience is to see what lessons it holds for Obama's efforts to grapple with the tension between the the forces of ideology and the realities of governance.
Once in power (by which I mean, once they have control of the White House), both liberals and conservatives tend to divide into two factions.  On the one hand, there are the keepers of the faith or the true believers of either set of doctrines; on the other, there are the pragmatists -- the people who are willing to sacrifice or amend the doctrine in order to achieve some desired result in policy making.

When they are running for office, liberals and conservatives typically promise the voters that they will establish a brave new world once they are elected, but the changes they actually are able to put into effect after successful campaigns are usually very small in comparison with their promises.  (This is true, incidentally, not just of those who ascend to the White House, but also of new congressional majorities, as demonstrated by, say, the Republicans' admission, one day after taking power in the House earlier this month, that their pledge to cut $100 billion from the budget in one year is impossible.)

In other words, both liberals and conservatives discover, once in office, that talking about governing (that is, campaigning) is one thing, but that governing is another.  Governing requires that compromises have to be made; principles have to be bent, or on occasion abandoned.  The world of ideology abounds with great expectations about the possibility of radical change, but the existing political system, as it operates on a day-to-day basis offers only limited opportunities for any such radical change.

President Reagan certainly found limits on his pursuit of ideological goals.  While his more radically conservative advisers were coming up with idea about, for example, "privatizing" the Social Security program, he soon discovered that the system had come to be regarded by the middle class in American society as a fixed entitlement that they had already "bought and paid for" -- to use his own famous remark about the Panama canal.  (George W. Bush was hit in the forehead with a similar discovery when he squandered the political capital he gained from his 2004 re-election victory by spending most of the following year unsuccessfully campaigning for a similar plan to privatize Social Security.)

As a result, only the most modest and incremental kinds of change in Social Security proved to be possible during Reagan's administration -- things like tightening up on government payments to disability beneficiaries.  And even this small change was challenged in court and eventually over-ruled in Congress.

Paradoxically, if the beneficiaries had not rejected the proposal, Reagan's chief legacy in the area of Social Security policy might have wound up being a very considerable expansion in the system itself.  During Reagan's last months in office, a "catastrophic health insurance" plan was added on to the existing system.  After protests from beneficiaries over the taxes they would have to pay to finance this new program, the plan was repealed by Congress in 1989.  (It's hard to ignore in this context the additional paradox of George W.'s big legacy to entitlement spending -- the enormously expensive Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit.)

In the field of foreign affairs, Reagan discovered that, while it was possible and popular for him to say extravagant things in speeches about the need to get tough with the Soviet Union, the agricultural community very much liked grain deals with the Soviets and the business community salivated over the opportunities that were opening up for trade with the Eastern bloc.  Reagan also came around to the view that the surest path to a positive legacy in the history books, for him as for presidents before him, was to be a peacemaker -- in his case, by negotiating a major arms-reduction agreement with what he'd long been calling the "evil empire."

Of course, there are plenty of historical precedents in the past sixty years other than the Reagan presidency that illustrate the larger point here about the intense struggle that can emerge between the ideologues and the pragmatists in either the conservative or the liberal camp.  Sometimes, these rifts cleave a party while it is in power; other times, the split comes during an election campaign that follows a period in power.

Consider the insurgency within the Republican party in the 1992 presidential campaign, when Pat Buchanan mobilized ideological conservatives within the party against the pragmatic compromises of incumbent Republican president, George H. W. Bush.  This insurgency certainly contributed to the Republican defeat in the 1992 election, ending an era in which the Republican party held the presidency for 20 out of 24 years.

Back in the 1960s a similar kind of rift occurred in the Democratic party, ultimately leading to the end of a period in which the Democrats had held the presidency for 28 out of 36 years. At the core of this Democratic insurgency was the New Left, whose adherents were even more critical of the pragmatic liberalism that dominated the Democratic party in the 1960s (as personified by Hubert Humphrey and Henry Jackson, for example), than the conservatives were eventually to be of the pragmatists in the Republican party during the G.H.W. Bush administration.

In any case, it's by no means a stretch to say that the shape of political developments in the U.S. since World War II has been as much affected by struggles within each party, between ideologues and pragmatists, as it has been by the competition between the two parties themselves.  Since World War II the ideological wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties have tended to wage war on the more pragmatic wings of their own camp.

To me, what is especially interesting about internal party cleavages, such as the one currently dividing mainstream Republicans from more conservative devotees of the Tea Party, is the opportunities they seem to open up for cross-party coalitions of odd bedfellows.  Moderates within each party may find their counterparts in the other party more attractive than the zealots within their own campground.  From such attractions emerge the possibility of interesting unions. Politicians eager for credit-claiming opportunities (the mother's milk of American politics) are likely to look across party lines to find allies for policy-making endeavors.

The pragmatists may well get things done.  Reagan faced criticism from within the ranks of conservatives for being willing to compromise with Democrats. But Reagan understood that by trying to go for the whole loaf in policy battles with his Democratic opponents, he risked walking away with no bread at all.  He understood that the American people typically prefer to see something cooling on the shelf, even if it's only half a loaf, and that he was better off producing that.

Every political observer can see, and countless others have written what I'm saying here --  that Obama's moves in recent weeks signal the elevation of pragmatists over ideologues within his White House.  That's good.  These moves are not ones the White House wants to hide under a bushel.  Let as much light shine on them as possible!  They may salvage Obama's presidency.  In any case, they are the surest sign of his appreciation that the lessons of Reagan's presidency have much to teach us all.