1932, 1968 and 1980

The remarkable thing about Bill Clinton’s “My Life” is the short shrift it gives to what happened in America in 1980.

Considering the impact of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the formation of Clinton’s own view of politics (long before he ever heard of John F. Kennedy), you would have thought he might have given more attention to the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

FDR and Lincoln were his favorite presidents, he writes. Clearly he thinks the United States reached a dramatic turning point in 1932. FDR was elected then. He sought to end the Great Depression, to create the modern mixed economy, and to lay the groundwork necessary to emerge victorious from World War II.

Was there not a similar turning point in 1980?

But then Clinton’s book is not about politics in its broad sweep. Understandably, it is, more than anything else, about his impeachment and attempted conviction by the Republicans. More than a quarter of its pages (and many of its most interesting passages) unfold between special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s first substantative appearance and his last.

Like many others, I have been browsing through the 957 pages of “My Life.” After five months in Europe, my resolve is to catch up with the best of the books I had missed while I was away.  And potentially, at least, Clinton has much to say about the political narrative thread of our times.

After all, he is the candidate who took over from the Republican Party after twelve years and ran the economy handily for eight years — becoming the first Democrat to be elected to a second term since Roosevelt himself.

Unfortunately, there is precious little analysis about how he thinks he did it.

To judge from Clinton’s account, the year 1980 holds no special significance for Americans.  It was the year 1968, he writes. “that broke open the nation and shattered the Democratic Party; the year that conservative populism replaced progressive populism as the dominant political force in or nation; the year that law and order and strength became the province of Republicans, and Democrats became associated with weakness, chaos, and out-of-touch self-indulgent elites; the year that led to Nixon, then Reagan, the Gingrich, then George W. Bush.”

For most of us, however, 1968 was merely the Crack-Up — the year when the strains of the New Deal alliance began to show. It was 1980 in which America began to regain a broad dogma resembling the New Deal consensus (if the word had not become so depleted of meaning, I would call it a political paradigm) that which had governed winning politics for the previous 48 years. The 1970s were a kind of dismal (if entertaining!) interregnum between the two, a period of crisis in which Richard Nixon turned out to be the last liberal president, operating for the most part in the tradition of the New Deal.

Nixon’s resignation, the fall of South Vietnam, the oil crisis, the rise of Japan, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the fall of the Shah of Iran, runaway inflation and a pair of unusually severe business cycles were the dominating events of the decade.

Throughout the ’70s, forces now misleadingly summarized as “neoconservative” were gathering strength — among Democrats as well as Republicans. Hard-line foreign policy Democrats such as Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson insisted on tougher attitudes in bargaining with the Soviet Union. Governors led by Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts and Jimmy Carter of Georgia gained office on the strength of pledges to cut the growth of government. Democratic legislators, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Rep. John Moss and Sen. Harrison Williams, pushed deregulation in transportation and financial services. Democrat stalwart Paul Volcker and his allies began an epic battle against inflation as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Moreover, similar developments occurred all around the world in those years. Margaret Thatcher was named Britain’s prime minister in 1979. China turned onto what it described as “the capitalist road.” So did Chile, though it required a military coup. Franco died, and Spain and Portugal overcame longstanding divisions and opened up their economies to the world. In Poland, the “Solidarity” movement gathered force. And the Soviet Union itself lost moral force.

Even though he was by no means alone in starting it, Ronald Reagan got the entire credit for what happened next. He ended the Cold War in victory, says his friend Milton Friedman, “by outspending the Soviet Union instead of having to outfight them on a bloody battlefield.” He took the recession that broke inflation. He cut government red tape. And, by slashing tax rates, he “[cut] the Congress’ allowance” and so slowed the growth of government.

To which it could be added, Reagan also restored faith in market forces, permitting the restructuring of the American economy, breaking up the telephone system and freeing IBM to compete with Microsoft in a single day.

In fact, Reagan probably deserves all this credit and more. These things all happened on his watch, even if the trends themselves had been in train for years. (Some of the events he had set in motion himself, with his famous nominating speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964). He embraced developments, took decisive action to further them.

Taken together, don’t Reagan’s achievements add up to a long-term redirection of American politics as distinctive as Roosevelt’s New Deal? And even if they weren’t precisely symmetrical (and naturally they weren’t), don’t they add up to the same kind of watershed for the current generation, even if they were different in degree?

Especially significant is the fact that Reagan didn’t so much repudiate the New Deal as build upon Roosevelt’s legacy. He plumped for the progressive income tax and signed a landmark bill into law in 1986, appointed the commission that in 1983 restored the Social Security system to fiscal balance (until the current administration abandoned his policy), and faced up to the bourgeoning problem of  the international order, especially in Eastern Europe.

Certainly Reagan was not as personally imposing as Lincoln, as masterful as FDR.  That’s why we have books like Dutch by Edmund Morris, seeking to convey how Reagan’s much-noted sunny optimism and simplicity served to achieve his goals. There were some sore losers in those years, too, among the Democrats. Witness the plethora of special prosecutors that were appointed, setting the stage for the astonishing breakdown of civility in the ’90s.

The point is that any account that doesn’t begin by taking note with this world-wide Turn — die Wende, as the Germans call it — is unlikely to persuade a majority of voters going forward. But there is no such recognition in Clinton’s book.  The insular and unimaginative phrase with which Americans describe these momentous events is “the Reagan Revolution.” The only time it appears in his book is when Hillary Rodham Clinton opines that probably it would not be over in 1988.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask Bill Clinton to elucidate the significance of the Reagan Revolution — a little like expecting Dwight Eisenhower after stepping down in 1960 to celebrate the achievements of the New Deal, even though for eight years he had served as faithful steward of most of Roosevelt’s program.

Yet we look to opposition leaders like Eisenhower, Clinton and, now, John Kerry to merge these stories — to pitch tents big enough to permit growing numbers of voters to cross over to without the sense that they are abandoning hard-win gains. That is how politics goes forward.

Perhaps Kerry will succeed in 2004.  If he fails, another Democrat will get another chance in 2008 — and then, almost certainly succeed. The strains on the consensus we describe as the Reagan Revolution are growing daily. The pace of change has quickened somewhat.  Before long, the Republicans will face their 1968.