1 June 2017

Trump should follow in Reagan’s footsteps


The younger readers of this column might not remember the scorn heaped on President Reagan in the 1980s. He was the butt of endless jokes on both sides of the Atlantic. In the opinion of his detractors, Reagan was needlessly belligerent in his dealings with the Soviet Union, heartless in his efforts to reform America’s welfare system and — this really appalled the Western intelligentsia —simplistic to the point of stupidity.

Today, many people look at Reagan very differently. He is considered to be one of America’s greatest presidents, presiding over one of the largest economic expansions in US history and setting the stage for the eventual collapse of communism.

Can President Donald J. Trump follow in Reagan’s footsteps and ensure that posterity views him as more than just an ignorant and arrogant buffoon? Yes, but time is not on Trump’s side.

Like Reagan, Trump has tapped into the general sense of malaise that has afflicted Americans since the start of the Millennium: a feeling of economic and social decline slowly spreading through the inner cities and rural areas alike, sapping the optimism and vitality that once defined the American experience. And while the two men differ greatly in their personal style, both communicated their ideas effectively.

There are, of course, clear limits to the similarities between the two. As Reagan’s diaries amply show, he was a thoughtful, analytical and knowledgeable man, whereas evidence of Trump’s intellectual prowess is yet to emerge. Reagan was principled and ideological, whereas Trump is proudly pragmatic and devoid of an overarching philosophical worldview.

To rescue his legacy, Trump cannot hope that the antagonistic media, international and domestic, will start treating him more gingerly. On the contrary, he must expect that as he goes on fulfilling his agenda – from dismantling the administrative state to pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement – the coverage of his administration will become more vitriolic, even unhinged.

What Trump has going in his favour, so far, is a core of supporters who have elected him in a fair and square contest with Hillary Clinton. They gave him their votes based on a set of solid and unequivocal promises. As I have explained here before, I disagree with many of Trump’s proposals. But, when it comes to one of the most important campaign promises – to jump-start the American economy and return the United States on a path of sustained and rapid growth – I support the administration wholeheartedly and, I assume, so do most Americans.

It was the blossoming of the US economy that earned Reagan the grudging respect of his critics, global and domestic. As one of America’s foremost economists, and my former boss, the late William A. Niskanen, wrote in 1996, “Real economic growth averaged 3.2 per cent during the Reagan years versus 2.8 per cent during the Ford-Carter years and 2.1 per cent during the Bush-Clinton years. Real median family income grew by $4,000 during the Reagan period after experiencing no growth in the pre-Reagan years; it experienced a loss of almost $1,500 in the post-Reagan years. Interest rates, inflation, and unemployment fell faster under Reagan than they did immediately before or after his presidency.”

Once Americans start feeling good about their livelihoods and about the overall trajectory of their country, much will be forgiven. Trump’s bombast, lies and exaggerations, and the concomitant embarrassment that he causes, will almost certainly become secondary to the feeling of optimism that economic regeneration brings.

To that end, it is crucial that Trump and Congressional Republicans continue with an aggressive deregulatory agenda, including removing impediments to growth such as the Paris Climate Agreement. Above all, Trump and the GOP have to deliver on tax and healthcare reforms this year.

If, come the mid-term elections in November 2018, the economy continues to sputter at the anaemic rate of growth that Trump inherited from Barack Obama, the Republicans could lose one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats. Once that happens, Trump’s legislative agenda will be dead and he will, most likely, face defeat in his 2020 re-election bid.

Running for the presidency in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan was “It’s the economy, stupid.” Trump would do well to learn from the husband of the woman whom he vanquished last November. He should focus on the economy and the big-item reform agenda that the majority of Americans want to see enacted. Perhaps then he will earn the grudging respect of his detractors and bequeath to posterity a legacy of which he can be proud.

Marian L. Tupy is senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity