Richard Reeves

Stockman Redux

As he became president in 1981, Ronald Reagan called in a 34-year-old congressman from Michigan named David Stockman, considered by many to be the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment.

Stockman had impressed the new president by humbling the old man in practice debates before Reagan took on President Carter back in September.

"Dave," said Reagan, "I've been thinking about how to get even with you for that thrashing you gave me in the debate rehearsals. So I'm sending you to the OMB (Office of Management and Budget)." Commented David Brinkley of NBC News: "He's so fast with big figures that he scares old Washington hands."

Stockman had only days to come up with a balanced budget that fulfilled Reagan's campaign promises to cut taxes and build up the military. He was fast, but not necessarily accurate or truthful. Not by a long shot. What he did was use a pre-Reagan-projected budget with a $75 billion deficit the first year. But he already knew the real figure would be more than $600 billion after totaling Reagan's new programs. On the revenue side, he used asterisks instead numbers. Lots of asterisks.

Stockman retired after four years, wrote a book, a confessional of sorts, went to Wall Street and made a lot of money. He turned down interview requests and kind of faded away.

Until last week, when he wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times. The headline was: "Paul Ryan's Fairy-Tale Budget Plan."

The piece began: "Paul D. Ryan is the most articulate and intellectually imposing Republican of the moment, but that doesn't alter the fact that this earnest congressman from Wisconsin is preaching the same empty conservative sermon.

"Thirty years of Republican apostasy -- a once grand party's embrace of the welfare state, the warfare state and the Wall Street-coddling bailout state -- have crippled the engines of capitalism and buried us in debt. Mr. Ryan's sonorous campaign rhetoric about shrinking Big Government and giving tax cuts to 'job creators' (read: the top 2 percent) will do nothing to reverse the nation's economic decline and arrest its fiscal collapse."

Stockman has a book coming out, which is obviously why he is reappearing in print. And he seems to be thinking about what has happened during those 30 years, in which, according to tax statistics, the number of Americans in the "middle class" has dropped by 10 percent or so. In his Times piece, there is an astounding paragraph that goes after Ryan on his national defense record:

"Mr. Ryan professes to be a defense hawk, though the true conservatives of modern times -- Calvin Coolidge, Herbert C. Hoover, Robert A. Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower, even Gerald R. Ford -- would have had no use for the neoconservative imperialism that the G.O.P. cobbled from policy salons run by Irving Kristol's ex-Trotskyites three decades ago. These doctrines now saddle our bankrupt nation with a roughly $775 billion 'defense' budget in a world where we have no advanced industrial state enemies and have been fired (appropriately) as the global policeman."

What's wrong with that picture? Ronald Reagan, Stockman's patron, is not on that list of true conservatives!

He goes on:

"Indeed, adjusted for inflation, today's national security budget is nearly double Eisenhower's when he left office in 1961 (about $400 billion in today's dollars) -- a level Ike deemed sufficient to contain the very real Soviet nuclear threat in the era just after Sputnik. By contrast, the Romney-Ryan version of shrinking Big Government is to increase our already outlandish warfare-state budget and risk even more spending by saber-rattling at a benighted but irrelevant Iran."

"Mr. Ryan showed his conservative mettle in 2008 when he folded like a lawn chair on the auto bailout and the Wall Street bailout. But the greater hypocrisy is his phony 'plan' to solve the entitlements mess by deferring changes to social insurance by at least a decade."

What would this new Stockman do?

"A true agenda to reform the welfare state would require a sweeping, income-based eligibility test, which would reduce or eliminate social insurance benefits for millions of affluent retirees. Without it, there is no math that can avoid giant tax increases or vast new borrowing. Yet the supposedly courageous Ryan plan would not cut one dime over the next decade from the $1.3 trillion-per-year cost of Social Security and Medicare."

So, this will be an interesting campaign. Romney-Ryan may be our new Goldwater-Miller. Perhaps the Republican ticket will declare that extremism in the service of the wealthy is no vice. But I doubt it.

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