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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Triumph of Corruption

Today’s news brings a true blast from the past: Ronald Reagan’s legendary budget director and former Congressman, David Stockman, has been indicted on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and obstruction of justice in connection with his operation of an auto parts firm that went bankrupt in 2005. He faces up to thirty years in the hoosegow, along with fines that could reach over a billion dollars. Many younger readers may have never heard of Stockman, who masterminded the massive budget and tax bills that characterized the core of Reaganomics. But he was virtually a pop culture figure in the early 80s, before losing power and eventually being forced out of office after incautiously admitting to journalist William Greider that the Reagan budgets were creating a fiscal disaster, mainly because Republicans had caved in to special interest demands while lavishing unnecessary hundreds of billions of excess dollars on the Pentagon.Shortly after leaving the administration, Stockman published what still stands as one of the best political “insider” books ever written, The Triumph of Politics, which expanded on his Greider interviews in fascinating detail. As the title indicates, the book chronicled the abandonment of the lofty objectives of Reagan’s initial budget blueprint thanks to an orgy of vote-buying and constituency-tending by GOP pols. Two sections of the book particularly stand out in my own memory: Stockman’s angry account of then-Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger’s exploitation of an accounting error to secure a vast increase in the Pentagon budget above and beyond what Reagan had originally proposed; and his graphic description of the bipartisan special-interest bidding war that made the first Reagan tax bill fiscally and morally ruinous, eventually requiring a big fix in the 1986 tax reform legislation. Aside from its historical value, Stockman’s book remains relevant because he so clearly anticipated and analyzed the political dynamics that ultimately produced the systemic fiscal profligacy and corruption of the Bush/DeLay-era GOP. Indeed, it was Stockman who coined the phrase “starve the beast” for the cynical conservative argument that unfunded tax cuts and huge deficits could restrain big government down the road without the political pain associated with specific budget cuts. The Bush-DeLay era of corruption, which pervaded corporate as well as political circles, led among other things to enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. In a special twist of fate, that’s the law under which Stockman has been indicted. I have no idea whether Stockman is guilty as charged, but it would be highly ironic if the man who offered the first and best analysis (and confession) of the moral rot infecting latter-day conservatism succumbed to corruption himself.

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