On Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the launching of his big tax-cut initiative, President Bush is preparing to send Congress his own proposal for across-the-board reductions in tax rates. This is more than a coincidence. It is a further certification -- if one is needed -- of the central and enduring role Reagan has played in the conservative politics that has dominated American government for a full generation.
You would not know that from looking at the makeup of the new administration. Alumni of the 1989-92 Bush years and retreads from the Gerald Ford years in the 1970s far outnumber the Reaganauts around George W. Bush. There was burnout by the end of Reagan's eight years in office, and few who served with him have the energy or desire to return to government.
But there's been no burnout for Reagan's ideas -- even when Democrats held power. President Clinton took up Reagan's effort to "end welfare as we know it," and saw it accomplished in 1996. Vice President Al Gore campaigned in 2000 on his "reinventing government" project, a variant of the Reagan plan to reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy and shift responsibilities to the states.
Now that the Republicans are back, Reagan's ideas will loom even larger in Washington. The Bush tax cut is 100 percent Reaganomics, resting on two ideas that Reagan taught his party.
The first is the proposition that wealth creation spurred by lowering marginal tax rates is the surest way to expand economic growth. Derided by Democrats as "trickle-down" economics and faulted by liberal critics for its impact on America's uniquely high disparities in income, it nevertheless has become the bedrock principle of Republicanism. Larry Lindsey, Bush's White House economics adviser, believes it just as fervently as Arthur Laffer and Jack Kemp -- who sold Reagan on "supply side" economics -- did a generation ago.
But Reagan was not content simply to argue the policy case for lowering taxes. He insisted that it was immoral for the government to take as much as it had been taking from the people of the country, because Washington is inherently a worse steward of financial resources than private individuals.
And that is a view with which President Bush entirely agrees. "I don't believe government should take more than 33 percent of anyone's income," he has said repeatedly. The one-third rule has no economic rationale; it is a moral proposition. And like any such statement, acceptance is a matter of faith.
Others may condemn the contrast between private affluence and the poverty of public services., But Bush, like Reagan, believes the journey of dollars from private bank accounts to government coffers is fraught with moral danger.
Like Reagan, Bush has learned to pitch his economics through populist anecdotes. Thus, the frequent mentions in Bush speeches of the waitress with two kids who will, in his telling, be the real beneficiary of his tax cuts. It's a great argument -- until you look at the numbers and see the financial bonanza that awaits the wealthiest Americans in the Bush plan.
But the combination of moralism, populist anecdote and the promise of economic growth is a powerful one. And this year, as in 1981, you can see congressional Democrats recalculating how far they have to bend their principles and suppress their doubts in order to avoid being caught on the losing side of the tax debate.
They are raising the same arguments that were heard in 1981 about the impact these tax cuts will have on the budget and the government's ability to meet its other obligations. And, once again, these cautions do not seem likely to prevail.
All of which is, in a real sense, a tribute to Reagan's enduring influence. Nor is this the only one. It was also Reagan who introduced the idea of shooting down nuclear missiles -- the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as "Star Wars." And now Bush wants to develop theater missile defense systems. There'll be a major debate with both allies and old opponents like China and Russia about this, but Bush seems committed to carrying through on this Reagan notion as well.
It all goes to prove the point that Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author and campaign consultant, makes in his essay on Reagan in the Feb. 5 issue of the Weekly Standard. Calling Reagan "the great communicator" badly underestimates the man, Bell says. His voice is stilled by age and infirmity, but his ideas live on.
Washington Post Writers Group