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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By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.