I stayed up late last night because I couldn’t reconcile myself to Stanford’s bizarre loss to San Diego State, and decided to tune in to Boob Tube News—I mean, CNN—which was running a documentary called “The Reagan Show,” described thus: “Made up entirely of archival news and White House footage, this documentary captures the pageantry, absurdity, and mastery of the made-for-TV politics of Ronald Reagan.” Supposedly we were going to see “behind the scenes” for some candid footage of Reagan in action.
It started off promising enough, with clips of Reagan going through three takes to tape a TV campaign spot for John Sununu’s campaign for governor of New Hampshire, but the otherwise smooth Reagan keeps stumbling over the pronunciation of “Sununu.” Finally Reagan quips, “Oh hell, why can’t his name be John Smith?”
But before long the film becomes a parade of what CNN no doubt thinks will be a damning portrait of the old clichés about Reagan—that he was an out-of-touch figurehead president. But ironically the effect is just the opposite, as it amounts to a perfect highlight reel of the media’s relentless hostility to Reagan. We see clips of a lot of “journalists” (or “Democrats with bylines,” to be more accurate) who are still on the scene today, such as Chris Wallace and Brian Ross, asking question after question with premises drawn wholly from liberal orthodoxy. “The Reagan Show” could be a clinic in media bias.
But one other aspect of it reminds me of the present moment. To be sure, Reagan’s White House had lots of factional infighting, and often had to clarify mis-statements from Reagan or contradictory messages coming from different nodes of the administration. Kind of reminds me of the Trump Administration. The story the Wall Street Journal flacked over the weekend that Trump was reversing course on the Paris Climate Accord, which was quickly and firmly disavowed by the White House, reminds me of nothing so much as the contradictory messages that came out of the Reagan Administration on arms control and US-Soviet relations. These often arose from competing factions in the State and Defense departments, and inside the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and National Security Council. (I do worry, though, that with Bannon gone the internal balance of power may have shifted to the pro-Paris, pro-climate alarmists near the president.)
At the end of the day, though, the Reagan Administration knew what it was doing. I suspect the Trump Administration is not nearly as chaotic as the media portray.
Which is not to say that there isn’t quite a bit of chaos inside the White House, proceeding ultimately from Trump himself. What’s up with his recent deals with Chuck and Nancy? I have a theory: Chuck and Nancy are easier to buy off than, for example, the House Freedom Caucus. He’s been doing it for years in New York City.
But one wonders about Trump’s vaunted deal-making ability. He appears to have bit on the first offer from Chuck and Nancy on the debt ceiling and on DACA. Here the contrast with Reagan is most instructive. Tip O’Neill used to say he hated negotiating with Reagan because Reagan always got 80 percent of what he wanted. Reagan’s strategy was patience and firmness. Most of his deals on taxes or the budget took months, not days or weeks, to achieve. (Also true for arms control—remember how he won the “zero option” on European missiles, which everyone hooted at when he proposed it; it just took six years to get.) He’d say to Tip, “Gosh, you know, I won 49 states, and I have a mandate to fulfill.” He’d stand firm until Tip reached yet another level of concessions, at which point he’d say, “Done!” And Tip would walk away fuming that he’d been had again. A Soviet official once compared Reagan to a lion, sitting calmly in the underbrush watching tempting things go by, and then suddenly reaching out with a big paw and swiping the prize that most appealed to him.
Maybe this is just craven political triangulation from Trump, Bill Clinton-style, which can be good politics, though probably bad policy. Or maybe this is the real, unprincipled or liberal Trump that we feared would emerge eventually. Maybe it is something in-between, in which case we’ll have the confusing spectacle of conservative judicial appointees and center-left policy on everything else.