Joe Biden’s inaugural speech was primarily about unity, a suitable theme after the pathologically divisive presidency of you-know-who. But Biden likewise declared that government can resolve the country’s problems efficiently– a theme that, a minimum of implicitly, repudiates the legacy of a much earlier predecessor who, inexplicably, ended up being the most admired president of the previous half-century.
Ronald Reagan was sworn into workplace exactly 40 years prior to Biden, on January 20,1981 It was my first day on the job as a staff author for The New Republic, and I have 2 memories.
The first was that Michael Kinsley, the editor, asked me in a low voice as he was leaving to offer any essential assistance to a more senior new hire, a wheelchair-bound previous speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale named Charles Krauthammer. (Mike didn’t feel certain Charles could open the front door, but he managed fine on his own and went on to evolve, prior to his unfortunate death in 2018, from liberal anti-Communist to movement conservative.)
My other memory of that day is a single line from Reagan’s inaugural speech as I watched it on a little TELEVISION in the workplace of Dorothy Wickenden, then the publication’s production chief and soon to be its managing editor. (I do not remember where Dorothy was.)
The speech was primarily unexceptional, much of it remarkable just in paradoxical retrospect. It wasn’t, for instance, particularly unique to hear a new president say, “For years we have actually piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our kids’s future for the short-term convenience of today.” That was a familiar enough platitude. What I couldn’t know was that President Reagan would broaden the budget deficit from $74 billion to $155 billion and that, twenty years later, Vice President Cock Cheney would tell Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, “Reagan taught us deficits don’t matter.” (Except, of course, if that president is a Democrat.)
The line that captured my attention as I listened with half an ear while dealing with some other assignment was the same line everyone keeps in mind from that speech. “In the present crisis,” Reagan said, “government is not the service to our problem; government is the issue.” Here, Reagan was really saying something. As a New Offer liberal who had actually elected Jimmy Carter, I knew it indicated difficulty, and so it showed to be.
Reagan’s war on government was more talk than action. As Kinsley would observe in 2001, on the celebration of Reagan’s ninetieth birthday, federal costs was, after inflation, one-quarter higher when Reagan left office than when he entered it, and the federal civilian labor force broadened from 2.8 million to three million. What Reagan did was decrease taxes, principally on the rich, as a share of gdp. Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump followed Reagan’s example, spouting anti-government rhetoric to justify tax cuts for the abundant but not following through with considerable costs cuts.
The theory for tax cuts as a method to diminish government was “starve the monster”: Deprive the federal government of income, and spending cuts would need to follow. However that didn’t take place; government costs continued to go up. Reviewing tax and costs patterns over the 20 years that followed Reagan’s election, the late libertarian economic expert William Niskanen concluded that tax cuts, far from compelling costs cuts, accel