The Triumph of Politics
The Triumph of Politics: How the Reagan Revolution Failed offers an insider’s view of the origins and destiny of President Ronald Reagan’s self-proclaimed “revolution” in American government. Indeed, the author, David A. Stockman, may have been the most crucial insider of all. As director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Stockman was the man entrusted, and burdened, with the task of getting big government “off the backs” of the American people. More specifically, Stockman was given primary responsibility for trimming a federal budget that Reagan had portrayed, during his campaign for the presidency in 1980, as bloated, wasteful, and ripe for cutting.
There turned out to be, however, a number of complications. Stockman’s task was not merely to cut federal spending; he was to balance the budget as well by the end of the president’s term, while income taxes were being cut by 30 percent over three years and defense spending was being dramatically increased. This required Draconian measures in cutting social spending; Stockman became the man with the budgetary meat-ax. In the end, however, he became very disillusioned by what he calls the “triumph of politics.”
Stockman tells his story in three stages. He first presents his political biography, explaining how he came to be a key figure in the Reagan revolution at the tender age of thirty-four. The middle part of the book is an account of the effort to launch the Reagan revolution during the president’s first months in office. This would be accomplished by cutting taxes and spending on the federal level, thus rolling back the welfare state while turning loose the productive energy of the marketplace. The final section describes the aftermath and legacy of what Stockman sees as a failed (and futile) attempt to alter fundamentally the course of American politics.
Stockman was reared on a farm near Scottdale, Michigan. Farm life taught him good work habits, and it was his “Grampa Bartz” who gave him a firm basis in Christianity and conservatism as well as a taste for politics, one that would ultimately carry him to Congress and the OMB. Stockman visited Washington, D.C., for the first time as a high school student, having won an essay contest on the theme of nonviolence. The trip was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and provided an early test of Stockman’s loyalty to his grandfather’s conservative values.
Stockman’s ideological identity underwent a sterner challenge when he attended Michigan State University. Responding to the tenor of the times, he indulged in what he describes as “soft-core Marxism,” becoming a critic of the Vietnam War and American capitalism. Like many of his generation, Stockman later outgrew his “new left” radicalism, but unlike most, he became a right-wing radical on economic policy, extolling the productivity and fairness of the free marketplace while attacking the welfare state. Ultimately, Stockman became a believer in “supply-side” economics.
Stockman’s ideas were linked to political power in a mercurial fashion. From his first visit, Stockman knew that Washington, D.C., was where he wanted to be. Intelligent, hardworking, and articulate, Stockman was first befriended by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York since 1976, but in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s a member of Richard Nixon’s White House staff. Moynihan landed Stockman a staff position with the House of Representatives. There, Stockman’s career was pushed forward by John Anderson, who ran as a third-party candidate in the 1980 presidential election.
By that time, Stockman’s career had taken a different path. Committing the “ultimate sin” for a staff member, he decided to run for Congress against Ed Hutchinson, a fourteen-year incumbent in Stockman’s home district. Stockman was successful (Hutchinson actually quit the Congress early in the campaign), winning election to the House in 1976. In Congress he became a personal and political friend to Jack Kemp, who introduced him to other advocates of supply-side economics.
It was the wedding of the supply-side movement to Ronald Reagan’s rising star that produced Stockman’s rise to national prominence. Though the intricacies of supply-side economics at first eluded Reagan, he ultimately recognized the political merit of an approach that promised economic growth while cutting taxes. Before becoming Reagan’s vice-presidential candidate, George Bush had referred to Reagan’s proposals as “voodoo economics.” The voodoo, however, eventually helped Reagan, and when the 1980 election carried him into the White House, the new president, responding to the lobbying efforts of Kemp and others, brought Stockman on board as director of the OMB. In the right place at the right time, Stockman became a prime architect of the Reagan revolution.
The second part of Stockman’s book is his account of how the revolution came undone. Though in retrospect Stockman believes that this was inevitable, he began his work earnestly, believing that he was taking part in a momentous...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)