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Shields and Brooks

June 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: And finally tonight: Shields and Brooks with some closing thoughts on Ronald Reagan’s political legacy– that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen. You know, we’ve spent the last few days talking about the past– what happened with Ronald Reagan in the years that he served as president, his two terms– and we’ve spent very little time looking at what has happened now. So let’s start by talking about his political legacy, David, by talking about what Ronald Reagan did during his time in office that affected what we are seeing right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess the biggest thing was the transformation of the Republican Party from a party that was sort of either main street and very cautious in the Gerald Ford mold, or very down– down about America, down culturally about America in sort of the old conservative mold, which was a very negative conservatism. Reagan transformed that conservatism into something that was much more ideological, much more upbeat.

So when you look at the way George W. Bush talks about foreign policy, it’s much more in the Reaganite mold than it is in the George-Bush-the-elder mold. Talking about spreading democracy around the world, talking about America having a unique mission to do that around the world– that’s all straight Reagan, and it just didn’t exist in the Republican Party until Reagan came along.

GWEN IFILL: Mark Shields, that was about foreign policy; what do you think about domestic policy?

MARK SHIELDS: On domestic policy, Gwen, he changed the premise of our government. Prior to Ronald Reagan, the only two Republicans that won the presidency had been really moderate Republicans– Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon– none of whom who ever in any way challenged the basic governing premise of the New Deal. They simply said, “we can do it at 10 percent off with people who’ve met a payroll.” But there wasn’t any frontal attack.

Ronald Reagan represented a frontal assault upon the New Deal and upon the premise of activist government being the answer– activist federal government– to society’s and the nation’s problems, and elevated the private sector to the point where it was the first place that government and the dominant party turned to for solutions. So I think that was a major change.

And Ronald Reagan changed the debate in the terms that remain today, that it wasn’t whether we would cut taxes, but how much. And it continues to be central in our domestic political debate. So the thing that Ronald Reagan did that hasn’t been mentioned, I think, enough, is that he carried 44 states the first time and 49 the next. He carried 377 of the 435 congressional districts. So that gave him enormous political clout. Not only did it surprise people with his victory, but the magnitude and enormity of that victory gave him such influence on Capitol Hill where people frankly were afraid to cross him.

GWEN IFILL: And David, he did that in some ways by transforming the Republican Party as we knew it in 1980 to what we see today.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think absolutely. One of the interesting things that’s happening now, and especially happened in the last few days, is that you have people like Pat Buchanan on the paleo-conservative side, and people like Bill Kristol, both of them claiming to be Reaganites. And Bill Kristol and Pat Buchanan agree on nothing, and so Reagan is very much contested territory.

GWEN IFILL: Well then what is a Reaganite, really?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think Kristol probably has a stronger claim. But the Reaganite is a reassertion of American authority around the world, and as Mark said, a scaling back of the government at home, at least rhetorically.

I think one of the things that he did and that we are now all of us living in the legacy with is that if you look at 1970s and the conventional wisdom, I think there was a view that we were heading towards some compromise between socialism and capitalism, something along the Swedish model. But then we had a wave– starting really in the ’70s under Carter– of deregulation, privatization; and under Reagan, cutting income tax and really a hard monetary policy to crush inflation. And all those things contributed to a shift in the debate. So now there’s not really a talk between the Swedish model and the American model.

Now we’re arguing whether tax rates should be 36 percent or 39 percent. It’s really tinkering within the American model. And Reagan really propelled that debate, which now democrats and Republicans are sort of living out that legacy.

GWEN IFILL: The other way, Mark, that it seems that Ronald Reagan may have changed the model of how one deals on international affairs, particularly… I read somewhere today where when George W. Bush took over, Tony Blair asked Bill Clinton, “what do I do? How do I get along with this guy?” And Bill Clinton said to him, “just be his friend.” It seems that the power of personal relationships even in otherwise clashing international relations seems to have started in many ways with Ronald Reagan.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, again, I mean, Ronald Reagan, and certainly in the great moment, I mean, I guess it stands in stark contrast to the current president of the United States. I mean, the great war of the Cold War, where we knew that the other side did have weapons of mass destruction, was resolved in large part because of Ronald Reagan’s trust and willingness to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the fact that the Soviet Union had been spent into some sense of weakness.

But I mean, that was an amazing resolution, when you had these two nuclear powers, and neither one of them fired a shot, to bring peace and a peaceable resolution to that conflict, in contrast obviously to Iraq today. But I think that Reagan quite frankly overcame the skepticism of many of his advisors– Caspar Weinberger, Richard Perle, and others– who said, “no, no, you can’t deal with the Soviets.” And in fact, I mean, Ronald Reagan was almost radical in that sense of dealing personally.

GWEN IFILL: And David, today when we hear President Bush talk about freedom and democracy around the world being one of the key goals of Americans, is that something which started also with Ronald Reagan, this very focused idea that the American model was the model for the world?

DAVID BROOKS: I would say it started with the declaration, but it was something that Reagan revived. It was not an idea that was prevalent in the Republican Party. But Reagan, really growing out of his FDR New Deal roots had a very progressive vision. You know, everybody talks about how optimistic he was. He wasn’t just… that wasn’t must a matter of his brain… brain chemistry. He was optimistic because his philosophy was optimistic.

He believed America had a mission in the world to spread democracy, and he believed he knew how that mission would end up, and it would end up with the victory of freedom, which is why he could not accept the permanence of the Soviet Union. And that’s why he thought he was bound to win. And as Mark said, he quickly recognized when he had crushed the spirit of the Soviet Union, and that’s when he could work with Gorbachev, and began working with him rather than against him.

GWEN IFILL: Mark, let’s move on to pure politics for a moment. In the wake of the Reagan revolution, politically, do moderate Republicans exist as a force within the Republican Party anymore?

MARK SHIELDS: Not really. They’ve been isolated geographically and philosophically. They don’t have the clout. You can say religiously the party moved from being Episcopalian to being evangelical. I mean, it’s a shift from the northeast, where the power of the party resided, where they could nominate almost single handedly Dwight Eisenhower and Thomas Dewey, to the point where the Main Street Republicans and the sunbelt Republicans were ascendant. But one of the things that just has to be mentioned about him is that Ronald Reagan had about him enormous personal security, and it served him very, very well.

Unlike his predecessors or most of his successors, he was totally at peace with himself. He was comfortable with himself, I mean so much so that I remember Robert Kennedy was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1968. There was never… no president ever had the confidence to have a ceremony at the White House to award that to Robert Kennedy’s widow. I mean, Lyndon Johnson didn’t do it, and Richard Nixon didn’t do it, and Gerry Ford didn’t do it, and Jimmy Carter didn’t do it. Ronald Reagan did, and he did it graciously and generously. And that was a stylistic thing over and over.

The other thing that cannot be ignored is that Ronald Reagan left a legacy where the government did not have a responsibility for those less fortunate, that somehow that the genius of the private sector would take care of it. The private sector’s great at creating wealth. It’s not terribly good at distributing wealth justly.

GWEN IFILL: David, what do you think about to that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess I’d say, if you look at what Reagan did, I think he and Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan launched… and Bill Clinton, launched really what has been an unprecedented 25- year boom. The ’80s boom was quite a good boom. The ’90s boom was an even better boom. And if you look at average incomes over the last 25 years, it’s grown pretty well. And if you take at the stagflation of the 1970s, that was terrible. So he began what was a return to affluence, which I think has benefited most, though not all, Americans. I think most middle class Americans are better off because of what’s happened.

GWEN IFILL: What has George W. Bush learned in an election year from the model by… that Ronald Reagan left, David?

DAVID BROOKS: One of the things that strikes me about Reagan and Bush is that they have similar leadership style: A lot of delegation, not a lot of detail work, a lot of staying away from Washington, D.C., a lot of clearing brush on various ranches. And I actually think, aside from the different policies, there’s a lot of similarities. I think that style of being an outsider, of not trying to appear as a politician, not trying to appear immersed in details, not trying to appear as an intellectual when you’re not clearly not an intellectual… I think that is sort of an American style. You look at Time and Newsweek this week, they both have an identical cover, and that’s a cover of Reagan as a cowboy. That’s an image that Bush also tries to play up. That’s just… sheer campaign theatrics. That’s a pretty good image that Reagan left Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Do you see that the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I see it slightly different. I think that in personal and political terms, Ronald Reagan had friends across the aisle, reached out across the aisle in a personal way that this President Bush has not been able to do, that his father quite frankly did do.

But I’ll tell you the biggest change that Ronald Reagan wrought in this presidential campaign of 2004, Gwen, is that we had the Kennedy/Nixon debates in 1960. After that, no incumbent president debated. Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t debate in ’64. Richard Nixon wouldn’t debate. Gerry Ford debated only because he was behind in 1976. But when Ronald Reagan was… had a double-digit lead over Fritz Mondale in 1984, he agreed to the presidential debates, and therefore he imposed that premise and that lia… that responsibility on every incumbent.

No incumbent president… even George W. might like to limit it to one debate right now. Ronald Reagan laid down the predicate that an incumbent president owes a responsibility to the electorate to debate his challenger.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we will see what happens later this year. Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you very much.