Reagan's touch costing plenty

Dan Rodricks

October 08, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Former President Ronald Reagan is back on the campaign trail, trying to raise money for Republican candidates from California to Florida. They say a ticket to an event with a Reagan appearance goes for $1,500. And some people actually pay it!

What kind of people?

Don't-worry-be-happy people.

The rich and the very rich and the incredibly rich. They own houses where, in nearly every room, one can find silver dishes filled with Smokehouse almonds. They happen into the Hamptons or do Cancun whenever they can. They're the kind of people who make millions, pay as little as possible in taxes and gripe about the length of the welfare rolls. They benefited the most from the economic boom that took place while Reagan was office -- that is, the richest 1 percent who now take 13 percent of the total national income.

That's the Reagan crowd. It's the same basic group from 10 years ago, only a little fatter.

I know a lot of other people who would like to shake the former president's hand, but can't afford the $1,500 fee. They seem to be pinching nickels these days -- a gesture born of both austerity and worry. There's a lot to be worried about these days.

The federal government has shut down because of the nation's budget crisis. There are close to 200,000 American troops on the Arabian Peninsula, preparing to make the world safe from Saddam Hussein and the United States (still stupidly dependent on Arab oil) safe from $1.50-a-gallon gasoline. The unemployment rate rose for the third consecutive month in September. The real-estate world is in a recession that some experts believe will be a long one. I have heard it said that the new motto for the 1990s will be taken from a tacky TV commercial: "I've fallen and I can't get up!"

Still, out there, in the land of sun, every hair and anecdote in place, Ronald Reagan is stumping for Republican candidates -- just like old times.

I guess that, among people who can pay $1,500 to attend a cocktail party, Reagan must still be popular.

The way I hear it everywhere else, even Americans who voted for the Gipper in both 1980 and 1984 are grumbling at what he left behind (though they hate to admit it). The nation's massive budget deficit, which reached mind-boggling levels during Reagan's tenure, gets most of the blame for the slowdown in the nation's economy. The deficit is on a steadily rising course. Next year's is expected to be about what it was this year -- about $200 billion. We've literally been living on borrowed time and foreign investment for 10 years.

If you go back to the early days of the Reagan presidency, and the reign of young David Stockman, you'll remember how supply-side economics was touted as the way toward a more expansive national economy. Reagan gave tax cuts to the richest Americans, an action that was supposed to trigger commerce. More commerce was supposed to lead to more revenues for the government. This was the Trojan horse that got the true-believers into the White House. In reality, it led to more revenues for the wealthy and a steadily rising budget deficit that now sits like a sumo wrestler on American financial initiative.

With his "no new taxes" pledge -- what he really meant was no new taxes on the rich -- George Bush certainly didn't hold himself up as a deficit reductionist, either. He put on a good show this past weekend, but, during his first two years in office, Bush has been almost as sluggardly about "this deficit thing" -- his term, not mine -- as Reagan was. Congress makes Bush look good. Our duly elected yahoos don't want to make anyone angry, especially the entrenched special interest groups (from beer producers to senior citizens) that fight every tax increase that comes along. All they can think of doing is taxing the middle class.

Which gets back to Reagan and these $1,500-a-ticket fund-raisers for Republican candidates.

There should be little surprise that the Gip still commands that kind of fee. (He also pulls down $30,000 for a speech.) He created -- or rather, cultivated and fertilized -- a class of wealthy Americans who will probably survive the recession nicely. The boom of the Reagan years was great if you were already rich, because, based on the government's own statistics, you got richer. (Even if you went to jail for insider trading or for bilking savings and loans, you probably got richer.)

Hey, I don't know about you, but I'm glad somebody out there is smiling. Pass the almonds!

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