Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
The End of the Reagan Era?
With Barack Obama's second inauguration, liberals are touting an altogether new epoch: the end of the Reagan era.
Unfortunately, I believe they are largely correct. We are witnessing a period of left-wing ascendance, marked by gay marriage, forced taxpayer funding of abortion, an exploding government class, and big government. As to the latter, Ronald Reagan had declared in his first inaugural: "government is not the solution . . . government is the problem." The first Democrat to follow Reagan, Bill Clinton, similarly stated "the era of big government is over." Clinton's affirmation was also affirmation of the Reagan era.
Then came Barack Obama. Just days after his 2009 inauguration, Obama proclaimed: "the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life." He said "only government" could alter our "vicious cycle."
Obama had repudiated Reagan, and the electorate would again reward him four years later. What Obama called for in 2009 seems to be the new American spirit in 2013.
But is it? Well, the answer is complicated.
For one, Barack Obama is undoing the Reagan era courtesy of an American public that exhibits utterly schizophrenic voting behavior. Let history record a confounding reality that will baffle future historians: The Obama era supplanted the Reagan era thanks to a voting public that adores Reagan, judges him our greatest of presidents, and overwhelmingly calls itself conservative rather than liberal. All unbelievable, yes, but true. Consider the facts:
For a long time now, starting with the Reagan presidency, Americans have described themselves as "conservative" rather than "liberal" by margins of roughly two-to-one. Generally, self-identified liberals have hovered around the 20 percent level, while conservatives have ranged in the upper-30 percent, sometimes above 40 percent.
Surely this must have changed in 2008, with Obama's election? No, despite Obama winning the presidency by 54 to 46 percent, 21 percent of Americans who voted said they were liberal vs. 38 percent who said they were conservative.
If that seems contradictory for a nation that voted for a man from the far left as president . . . well, it is. But it gets worse.
A major Gallup poll conducted from January to May 2009, at the height of "Obama mania," found more self-described conservatives than liberals not only by 40 percent to 21 percent but in literally all 50 states. That's correct, all 50 states, from California to Massachusetts. And that electorate chose Obama.
It also chose Reagan. During that same period, a remarkable survey was done by Clarus Research Group, which asked Americans which president should be the model for Barack Obama in shaping his presidency. Their top choice was America's most conservative president: Ronald Reagan.
How could that be? Answer: it cannot. It is impossible.
And yet, it isn't a shock that Americans would look to Reagan as their model. Two years after the Clarus survey, a Gallup poll released for Presidents Day 2011 ranked Reagan the "greatest president" of all time, garnering 19 percent of the vote among 44 presidents, beating Lincoln fairly soundly, who finished second at 14 percent. Gallup began asking the "greatest president" question in 1999. Of the 13 times Gallup has done the survey, the public placed Reagan first four times-2001, 2005, 2011, and 2012.
How does that same citizenry twice elect Barack Obama? That's a very good question.
Well, maybe this long admiration for Reagan conservatism suddenly changed in November 2012?
No, though liberals did draw a little closer. According to CNN exit polling, 35 percent of voters on November 6, 2012, described themselves as "conservative" and 25 percent chose "liberal." This was identical to a Pew poll.
Importantly, some observers dispute these self-designations, insisting that many of those who call themselves conservative really aren't. Here and there, that may be true. Overall, however, I think the designations are fairly accurate. When you break down the data, and ask questions like whether voters prefer more taxes and more government, they generally don't - even when they vote that way.
So, what does all of this mean?
It means that a self-described conservative, Reagan-loving electorate has twice voted for a hardcore leftist, Barack Obama, to, in effect, end the Reagan era. That wasn't the intent, but that's the result.
I'll end with a dose of Reagan optimism: It also means that the Reagan ideal is not over. I believe that most Americans (for now) still prefer Reagan's principles and view of government over Obama's. The Reagan principles are ultimately time-tested and true; they are the universal, unalienable principles of the Founders, rooted in eternal Judeo-Christian beliefs and Natural Law.
The Reagan vision and values are already here, ready to be tapped and again prevail. They merely require the right spokesman, and Barack Obama's exit from the presidency.
The Fiscal Cliff: What Would Reagan Do?
As President Obama and Democrats urge Republicans to increase taxes, some liberals are curiously invoking the name of Ronald Reagan, the ultimate tax-cutting Republican. They insist that even Reagan was willing to compromise with Democrats on tax increases; thus, John Boehner and Republicans should as well. In truth, this is (at best) a false parallel.
It is correct that Ronald Reagan occasionally compromised on certain tax increases, as he did in 1982. He did so in exchange for promised spending cuts from Democrats that never materialized, to his great regret. Reagan would constantly point back to this broken promise by Democrats.
More importantly, however, President Reagan never budged on income taxes. He flatly refused to increase income taxes, which is what President Obama demands of Republicans. Reagan understood that not all taxes, and thus not all tax increases, were equal.
For insight into Ronald Reagan's thinking, consider what he did in 1981, when faced with a stagnant economy: At his California ranch on August 13, 1981, Reagan, working with a Democratic House and Republican Senate, secured a 25 percent across-the-board reduction in income tax rates over a three-year period beginning in October 1981. Eventually, through this and later cuts, the upper income-tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.
After a slow start through 1982-83, the stimulus effect of the tax cuts was extraordinary, sparking a huge peacetime economic expansion. The "Reagan Boom" produced not only prosperity but - along with the Soviet collapse that he worked to precipitate - helped generate budget surpluses in the 1990s.
And contrary to the history that liberals continue to rewrite, the Reagan tax cuts did not decrease the revenue to the U.S. Treasury. To the contrary, tax revenues under Reagan rose from $599 billion in 1981 to nearly $1 trillion in 1989. The problem was that outlays (i.e., government spending) all along exceeded revenues, soaring from $678 billion in 1981 to $1.143 trillion in 1989.
The cause of the Reagan deficits -bear in mind that Reagan inherited a chronic deficit - was the decline in revenue from the 1982-83 recession and (as is always the case) excessive federal spending.
Spending has long been, and still remains, the primary reason for our fiscal crisis. This has been especially true since the massive growth of the federal government began in the 1960s by LBJ's Great Society.
Proof of this is as easy as Googling the words "historical tables deficit." You will see two go-to sources for budget data: "OMB historical tables" and "CBO historical tables." "OMB" is Office of Management and Budget. "CBO" is Congressional Budget Office. To keep it simple, look at the data from OMB, President Obama's own budget office. At the OMB link is Table 1.1, "Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789-2016," an official report of all federal spending since the founding of the republic.
A close read of that chart offers a stunning display in fiscal irresponsibility. As the first two columns show, receipts (i.e., revenues) and outlays (i.e., expenditures) moved up and down throughout the first roughly 180 years of our history. In 1965, however, something historically perverse began: Spending started increasing every single year, without exception, into the Obama presidency, from 1965-2009. A slight decrease came only in 2010, but then spending promptly ratcheted right back up, and remains on a steady upward trajectory through 2017.
There are few constants in the universe: gravity is one, the sun is another. Add another: spending by Washington; it goes up every year.
Worse, in 2009, President Obama and the Democratic Congress responded to the slow economy with a gigantic spending infusion: an $800-billion "stimulus" package that further exploded our record deficit/debt. The "stimulus" was a costly waste that continues to bury us.
In short, this is why Republicans should not agree to Democrats' demands for tax increases. This nation has a spending problem - a grave one - not a tax-revenue problem. Our problem today is reckless big government.
At his 1981 inaugural, Ronald Reagan, referring to the economic crisis he faced, declared that "government is not the solution ... government is the problem."
Just days after his inaugural, Barack Obama professed the opposite:
[A]t this particular moment, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back into life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs.
To repeat: Ronald Reagan never budged on marginal income-tax rates. He decreased them, big-time. Barack Obama is demanding that they be increased. Ronald Reagan, we suspect, would be fully supportive of current Republicans holding their ground on tax rates - especially given our federal government's unparalleled inability to control its reckless spending.
On Russia's Adoption Ban
Vladimir Putin has sparked international outcry by banning adoptions of Russian children by American families. His action immediately halted the departure of hundreds of Russian orphans about to board planes to journey to a new life. It was a cruel move, widely condemned as "callous" and "vindictive."
No country adopts as many Russian children as America. According to the State Department, there have been 60,000 adoptions by American couples since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That has now suddenly ended.
Why would Putin do this? The main reason seems to be retaliation for a recent U.S. law aimed at curtailing human-rights abuses by Russia's corrupt government. The Magnitsky Act bans Russian officials who have committed abuses from entry into the United States. The ban on U.S. adoptions by Putin and his cronies appears to be retaliation.
Yet, there is a possible added motivation to Putin's action. Consider:
The reality is that Russia continues to bleed population. For about a decade and a half now, projections have been that Russia's population will plummet from 140-150 million to 104 million by 2050. What are the chief causal factors in this? There are several, but among the biggest is abortion, which occurs in Russia at an astonishingly high level. Putin has tried to slow the hemorrhage, but has failed to do so.
A little background: Abortion was legalized in Russia by the Bolsheviks shortly after they seized power in October 1917. Vladimir Lenin made good on his promise for an "unconditional annulment of all laws against abortion." In short order, the number of abortions skyrocketed. By 1934, Moscow women were having three abortions for every live birth. The toll was so staggering that an appalled Joseph Stalin, the mass murderer, actually banned abortion in 1936, fearing a vanishing populace.
In 1955, Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, reconstituted legalized abortion. By 1958, there were 5 million abortions per year in the Soviet Union. (This contradicted Margaret Sanger's optimistic prediction that "neither abortions nor contraception will be necessary or desired" once a "functioning communistic society" was in full bloom in the Soviet Union.) By 1965, abortions peaked at 8.2 million, dwarfing the worst years in America post-Roe v. Wade. By 1970, some 3,000 full-time abortion doctors were performing roughly 7.2 million abortions per year. By the 1980s, Soviet citizens comprised 5-6 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's abortions.
The Cold War and Communism ended in Russia in the 1990s, but the runaway abortion rates did not. Those rates continued into the Putin era, with the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. An illuminating article in the Washington Post in February 2003 reported that 13 percent of Russian couples are infertile, with more on the rise. "In nearly three out of four cases," said the article, "infertility is attributed to the woman, typically because of complications from one or more abortions." The Russian Health Ministry reported 1.7 abortions for every live birth - which is actually an improvement from previous decades, but only because contraception is being more widely used. Either way, it adds up to a decline in population.
In response, Vladimir Putin has taken major measures to try to stem this tide. In 2003, he implemented the first restrictions on abortion in Russia in almost 50 years, limiting abortions to within 12 weeks of gestation. Exemptions were allowed only for rape or the imprisonment, death, or severe disability of the husband.
Remarkably, Putin's Russia has even gone so far as to initiate a National Fertility Day, aimed at getting the culture to produce more Russians.
And so, how might the adoption ban fit into this? Well, adopted Russians by foreigners - especially Americans, who adopt more Russians than any other country - means more Russians leaving Russia. By banning adoptions, Putin's country can retain more Russians. There may be a measure of pure Russian demographics and nationalism behind this decision.
In fact, the adoption ban was championed in the Russian legislature by the nationalistic United Russia party, even before it got to Putin. And it's quite telling that Putin has responded to his ban on American adoptions with measures intended to boost adoptions internally by native Russians. He promises a presidential decree to "modify the support mechanisms for orphaned children."
Thus, overall, Putin's adoption ban has two "benefits," in his mind: 1) it retaliates against the U.S. Magnitsky Act; and 2) it retains more Russians in Russia.
That's classic Putin - and a tragedy for many Americans and many Russian children who will likely remain orphans.
The Presidential Blame-Game
February is the month of presidents. It includes Washington's birthday, Lincoln's birthday, Ronald Reagan's birthday, and, of course, Presidents Day. Given that I teach and write about presidents, this time of year always prompts me to strange musings. This year is no exception, as I'm thinking about six particular presidents: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, FDR, Herbert Hoover, Bill Clinton, and Harry Truman. How could I possibly connect these six?
Bear with me - I'll start and end with Obama.
Barack Obama, and particularly his re-election campaign, has achieved something quite dubious of a sitting president. Namely, he has managed to successfully blame nearly every woe of the last four years on his predecessor. Never mind that every economic indicator under Obama is not only worse than under George W. Bush, but far worse. Obama has presided over a steadily worsening economic disaster, one that is stacking up as one of the most dreadful economic records of any president in history. And yet, as he does, he passes the buck to his predecessor, blaming George W. Bush.
This is unbecoming of an American leader; it's precisely what our presidents don't do; they don't treat each other like this, having much more respect for the job and those who have held it. There is a long-time gentlemen's understanding, honored by nearly every president, that you don't blame your predecessor for your problems.
Nonetheless, George W. Bush has become Obama's go-to scapegoat.
For the record, Obama is not completely alone in mastering this ignoble tactic. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like Obama, conjured up various demons to advance his "progressive" agenda, with the rich atop his enemies list. But FDR also dumped on his Republican predecessor. He blamed everything on Herbert Hoover.
Notably, this really upset Hoover. Hoover was hurt deeply by FDR constantly trashing him, his record, his policies. FDR did not treat Hoover the way we Americans expect our presidents to treat one another. Their relationship became toxic. FDR's successor, Harry Truman, took notice. "Roosevelt couldn't stand him," said Truman of Hoover, "and he [Hoover] hated Roosevelt."
Even sadder, FDR, like Obama, got away with this blame-game. FDR successfully pinned everything on Hoover in re-election upon re-election. As for Obama, a literal majority (60 percent, according to one exit poll) who voted for him in 2012 agreed with him that the terrible economy was totally Bush's fault. They swallowed Obama's Bush blame-game hook, line, and sinker.
How do Harry Truman and Bill Clinton relate to this?
Truman and Clinton, like Obama and FDR, were, of course, both Democrats. Truman, however, was willing to put party aside to do what was right. He had character by the boatload. Truman saw how troubled Hoover was by FDR's mistreatment. A good man, Truman did what he could to remedy the situation. (This is detailed nicely by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in their excellent new book: The Presidents Club.) He reached out to Hoover after World War II and sought to use the maligned ex-president in several significant projects, including post-war reconstruction for Europe.
"I knew what I had to do," said Truman. "I knew just the man I wanted to help me." And so, Truman employed Hoover's considerable managerial talents.
It was a very gracious gesture, and pure Truman. Truman saw a wrong by his fellow Democrat, FDR, and strived to correct it, regardless of his party loyalties.
Bill Clinton, unfortunately, is the anti-Truman. When Clinton, who is very friendly with both George W. Bush and his father, learned of Obama's campaign to blame Bush for every ill in America, including those that Obama has not merely created but mushroomed to unprecedented levels, what did Clinton do? Did he telephone Obama and say, "Hey, back off, that isn't right and you know it. We presidents don't treat ex-presidents that way."
No, that's what Harry Truman would have done. Bill Clinton joined the Obama campaign against Bush. The most notorious display was Clinton's Democratic National Convention speech, where he prattled on about how not even he could have turned around the permanently disfigured economy that Barack Obama inherited from the malevolent Bush. No, no way, just impossible. Clinton incessantly pushed the line in campaign stop after campaign stop.
And no doubt, when the 2012 campaign was all over, and Clinton, who perhaps even privately voted for Mitt Romney (it wouldn't surprise me), surely flew to Texas and (Joe Biden-like) grinned and back-slapped George W. Bush and said, "Hey, no hard feelings, pal!"
And George W. Bush, no doubt, did what he always did, stoically turning the other cheek, forgiving Clinton, and gently suffering the insults in silence - and again helping to make possible another Obama term.
Happy Presidents Month, America.
Hugo Chavez: Faithful to Death
There's an old joke from the Cold War. It went like this: Hardline East German Communist Walter Ulbricht (who erected the Berlin Wall) died and went to hell. There, the devil gave him a choice between the socialist sector and the capitalist sector. Devoted to the end, Ulbricht stuck to the faith, saying: "I'll go to the socialist sector." "Good choice," averred the devil. "Over in the capitalist sector, they're getting the full hellfire treatment. But in the socialist sector, they've run out of coal."
Say what you want of Hugo Chavez, of his tactics, of his beliefs, and (as many are doing) of perhaps where he might be right now, but this much is certain: he stuck to the faith.
Many of us were downright amazed when Chavez, in his late 50s and desperately ill from cancer, opted to go to Cuba for treatment. It was a surefire death sentence. Only the most hopelessly devoted Communist would be so nave. Loaded with vast wealth he stole from his people, Chavez effectively chose acupuncture over the 21st-century healthcare widely available anywhere in the West.
And yet, the Venezuelan dictator clung to his religion. He went to Havana.
Chavez apparently gained some measure of comfort near the aging breast of his dying, beloved Fidel. He had so much in common with Castro, admiring the totalitarian's unparalleled, unprecedented seizure of power and resources, all in the name of redistribution and "social justice." Like Fidel, he pilfered enough riches from the ostracized affluent class to make himself one of the world's wealthiest leaders. As he did, he churned the propaganda, blaming his nation's every ill on his predecessors and on the alleged criminality of the very same rich - as Fidel has done, as the left generally has done.
A few years back, my wife and I were in Washington meeting with an old friend from grad-school days, a native of Venezuela named Daria. When we introduced her to another acquaintance, she remarked with a sad smile, "I'm from Venezuela. We're Communist now."
In Chavez's partial defense - and this isn't saying much - he never achieved the scales of collectivism and depths of depravity of Fidel Castro, or of the world's really bad Communists. Venezuela didn't become Cuba or the Soviet Union. Needless to say, Hugo Chavez was no Joe Stalin - even as, remarkably, he died on the 60th anniversary of Stalin's death.
Nonetheless, like any man of the left, he had his enemy groups, and he used them to full advantage. Some of these assorted villains were flagged in a curious Washington Post obituary that headlined Chavez as a "passionate" albeit "polarizing" figure. What earned him even this slight compliment from the Post? Who knows? The same article noted that Chavez referred to the Catholic Church hierarchy as "devils in vestments." But perhaps the Post was impressed less with Chavez's opprobrium for the Catholic Church than his encomiums for Barack Obama.
Of course, Chavez was a big fan of Obama. He made this clear the first year of Obama's presidency. In an extraordinary statement at the United Nations that September, Chavez sniffed, "It doesn't smell of sulfur here anymore." This was a swipe at former President George W. Bush. Waxing almost spiritual, Chavez mused: "It smells of something else. It smells of hope."
Yes, even to Hugo Chavez, Barack Obama equaled hope; the theological virtue of Obama. The Venezuelan caudillo inspiringly appealed to David Axelrod's legendary campaign slogan.
And like Obama, Chavez just as quickly jettisoned the words of hope when less-inspiring rhetoric better suited his intentions. He excelled at blaming things on the rich, on profit seekers, on greedy corporations, on nefarious jet-owners and millionaires and billionaires, on banks, on investors, and, of course, on George W. Bush. Unlike Obama, who he spoke of in angelic terms, Chavez called George W. Bush a "devil."
Chavez often seemed to invoke the devil.
Alinsky-like, Chavez constantly isolated his targets and demonized them, calling them "degenerates," "squealing pigs," and "counter-revolutionaries." It was pure demagoguery.
In this, and more, Hugo Chavez was faithful to the very end. Did he really think he would be healed in Havana? Was there no other hope? Or, in the end, maybe faith was all that Chavez had. He should have learned from millions of Cubans over the last 50-plus years: faith in Fidel leads only to destruction and death. *