SYNOPSIS: Scorns the popular Republican belief that Clinton is reaping the benefits of Reagan's foundation.
You don't have to be a brilliant political analyst to realize that the Republican nominee for president (whose identity is still, amazingly, in doubt) is going to have trouble making an economic case for his candidacy. As Bill Clinton put it, declaring that he had a "lot of sympathy" for the Republicans: "I mean, it's hard for them to figure out what to run on. They can't run against the longest economic expansion in history."
No, but they can try to claim credit for it. In the months ahead, there will be a deafening chorus of pundits insisting that it was Ronald Reagan who laid the foundations for our extraordinary prosperity -- indeed that today's prosperity is the ultimate vindication of Reaganomics.
The other day I happened to read a fairly typical example of the genre, an article titled "It's the Reagan Economy, Stupid." The piece, circulated by a neo-Reaganite pressure group called The Club for Growth, was written by Lawrence Kudlow, who was an adviser to Steve Forbes's campaign, and the club's president, Stephen Moore. (Mr. Moore is also director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute.) The title says it all: Rapid growth in the late 90's is the continuing legacy of Mr. Reagan's tax cuts, way back in 1981. And reading the piece, an idea occurred to me.
You see, the usual riposte to this sort of thing involves a weary reiteration of the basic economics involved. One tries, for the umpteenth time, to explain that nothing extraordinary happened to the U.S. economy during the Reagan years. Well before the events of the 80's, scenarios of disinflation had become standard exercises in the macroeconomics textbooks. In these scenarios, an initial period of rising unemployment and slow or negative growth would be followed by a period of rapid, non-inflationary growth and falling unemployment, with the unemployment rate ending up about where it started. And that's just what happened.
But though it's the simple truth, this explanation is too complicated to be heard over the shouting.
So what do you say we focus on the character issue instead? Are the commentators who say that our current prosperity vindicates Reaganomics being honest? If they are, then if things had gone differently -- if the economy had done badly under Bill Clinton -- logic implies that they would have reached a different conclusion. If good news vindicates the Reagan legacy, bad news would have called it into question, right?
I suppose I could stop right there. You know and I know that if the economy were slumping instead of booming, the same people would triumphantly contrast the Clinton record with Mr. Reagan's and declare the contrast -- surprise! -- a vindication of Reaganomics.
But we don't have to leave this as a mere conjecture. Instead we can be scholarly, and look at the literature -- that is, earlier writings by some of the Reaganite faithful, from the years before it became clear that their problem would be how to explain away the economy's continuing success.
For example, it so happens that in October 1996, little more than three years ago, Mr. Moore and William Niskanen, Cato's chairman, put out a report titled "Supply-side tax cuts and the truth about the Reagan economic record." This report was vehement in insisting that in assessing Mr. Reagan's achievement one must not include any data after 1989, which marks the end of the Reagan era; the years from 1981 to 1989 "provide a convenient and unique laboratory-like testing ground for assessing the success or failure of Reaganomics." And the report went on to argue that the slower growth from 1989 to 1995 demonstrated the superiority of Reaganite policies.
It doesn't get much better than this. If the post-Reagan economy stumbles, the great man's responsibility ends on the day he left office. But if the good times keep rolling, so does Mr. Reagan's legacy. As they say in the scholarly journals: Gotcha!
Of course, none of this will make any difference either to the views or the behavior of the faithful. Commentators will commentate, fulminators will fulminate, and everyone will pretend to base his arguments on the evidence. But now that you know the truth, here's a suggestion: Next time you hear a talking head start to explain how Ronald Reagan deserves the credit for Bill Clinton's economy, switch to the Discovery Channel -- where you might actually learn something.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.22.00