If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or anyone, attacks Ronald Wilson Reagan, it is fitting and proper for loyal Reaganites, including this one, to rise to the Gipper’s defense.
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, is suddenly one of the most influential Democrats in the country. Yes, she’s only a freshman Member of Congress, and so she has relatively little formal power, and yet she speaks for a large and growing faction of Democrats. Indeed, she’s a formidable media phenomenon, boasting, at last count, 3.5 million Twitter followers. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has just 2.3 million Twitter followers, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer just 1.7 million.)
In other words, if AOC criticizes Reagan, people will pay attention. And criticize him him she did, on March 9, at the SXSW extravaganza in Texas. As recorded by Mediaite, she scorned Reagan’s use of the word “welfare queens,” asserting that he had put forth a “resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing, that were sucks on our country.” That was, she continued, “not explicit racism, but still rooted in a racist caricature.”
As to AOC’s charge that Reagan was trafficking in racism, there’s been plenty of righteous pushback. For instance, Mark Weinberg, a former Reagan aide, and Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer, teamed up to publish “AOC Lies: Reagan Was No Racist.” The co-authors recalled, for example, that back in 1931, college-student Reagan invited two black football teammates to stay in his home when they were refused admission to a hotel because of their skin color.
And as for the specific issue of welfare, it is true that Reagan was a fierce opponent of welfare dependency—although of course, a lot of people were, and still are. In Reagan’s day, the public’s concern was heightened by soaring welfare rolls; in fact, welfare spending, as a percentage of GDP, doubled in the 1960s. And so in the 70s Reagan did, indeed, cite the egregious case of one Linda Taylor, who was convicted of welfare fraud and related charges and sent to prison for five years.
As an aside, we might note that Charles Murray’s landmark book on welfare pathologies, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, was published during the Reagan presidency; at the time, as far as most Americans were concerned, Murray’s work settled the question of the welfare system’s defects, and so welfare reform as a popular cause took off, culminating in the distinctly Reaganite welfare reform bill of 1996. (And we might also note that today still, abuses of the welfare system are still a real problem, even a criminal problem.)
For her part, AOC has been piling on yet more critiques of Reagan. In tweets responding to Craig Shirley, she added to her list of criticisms, including “Iran-Contra,” “the gutting of our mental health system,” “the explosion of homelessness under his watch,” “the crack epidemic,” “HIV/AIDS crisis and demonization of LGBT+ community,” and “union-busting.”
This author worked for Reagan, in his presidential campaigns and in the White House, from 1979 to 1984, and so he likes to think he has a pretty good memory of that era, when Reagan was rescuing the economy, winning the Cold War, and appointing conservative judges. In other words, Reagan had lots on his plate; moreover, not every unhappy event from that era was his fault.
So while one could go through AOC’s indictments, item by item—disagreeing with some points, contextualizing other points, and perhaps even agreeing with one or two, because nobody’s perfect—there’s a simpler way to get to the bottom line of Reagan’s tenure in the White House. That is, we can recall what the American people thought, at the time, of the 40th president. Here, two metrics stand out:
First, midway through his presidency, in 1984, Reagan was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote, carrying 49 of 50 states; indeed, he was one of only two presidents in U.S. history to win over 500 electoral votes.
Second, Reagan left office with an approval rating of 63 percent, the highest farewell number of any post-war president.
We might further note that Reagan left office in January 1989, just 11 months before the Berlin Wall came down. That momentous—and peaceful—ending of the Cold War was a tribute to Reagan’s anti-Soviet policies, from aiding Polish union activists, to arming Afghan and Nicaraguan rebels, to launching the Strategic Defense Initiative. Thus it seems obvious: Reagan should be rated as one of our greatest presidents, alongside Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts.
So yes, it’s perplexing to see AOC criticizing Reagan in such blanket terms, especially since she has encouraged criticism that goes even further—sample headline, “No, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Didn’t Call Ronald Reagan a Racist. But She Should Have.”
Why, one might even get the impression that AOC & Co. hanker for the pre-Reagan days—you know, the stagflationary 1970s, when tax rates reached as high as 70 percent, and the misery index hit 22 percent. (That index, the sum total of the unemployment and inflation rates, fell by two-thirds during Reagan’s presidency.)
So what’s going on? Why is criticism of Reagan gaining so much currency? Is it forgetfulness? Bad education? Or simply a case of ideology getting the best of reality?
Interestingly enough, Reagan, student of history that he was, had an answer to these questions. As he said in 1961:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.
In other words, either we learn from the past, or we don’t. And if we don’t, well, we are at risk of making the same mistakes all over again.
Today, 30 years after Reagan left office, and 15 years after his death, it’s evident that AOC and many in her generation are avidly embracing the sorts of policies that Reagan—and, at the time, the American people—rejected.
To cite just one example, there’s the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which is welfare on steroids—and which is gaining support on the AOC-ish left. UBI is, to put it bluntly, a check for you, and me, and everybody, no strings attached, no questions asked.
There is, to be sure, a useful debate to be had about how to aid work and workers, and how to further assure the dignity of work. And yet as we think about UBI, we might recall the wisdom of one of Reagan’s favorite presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who declared in his 1935 State of the Union address that welfare is “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
Continuing, FDR added, “It is inimical to the dictates of a sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”
In other words, we don’t need to be a nation of welfare queens, and welfare kings; we need to be a nation of productive workers, gainfully employed. That’s good for the soul, good for the economy, and good for the nation.
For the time being, UBI is just an idea—an idea that’s been tried in a few places, and rejected. Yet it’s possible that after the 2020 elections, we will be once again be led by those who think that the welfare surge of the late 20th century was a good thing, not a bad thing.
And if so, then we’d better hope that we get another Reagan, to save us once again.