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02 September 2015

Reagan's Critic: Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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Above: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Image from Wikipedia.

[This post, from Joe Ryan-Hume, University of Glasgow, is another in our series of posts from this year's Eccles Centre Fellows]

Earlier in the summer, I had the pleasure of spending two weeks at the British Library as part of an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Research Fellowship Award. In a fortnight filled with record heat waves and unavoidable tube strikes, I was able to make substantial progress on a thesis chapter based on my findings at the library. The wealth of material available is beyond compare, and as this post will highlight, use of the newspaper archives, particularly the New York Times, enabled me to strengthen my argument considerably.

I am a current third-year Ph.D. student based in the Department of History at the University of Glasgow. My thesis questions the notion of conservative ascendancy and the so-called ‘Reagan revolution’ in 1980s America by reinterpreting the impact of liberalism at the time. In order to do so, a section of it focuses on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY.), a liberal champion and vocal critic of the Reagan administration. From an examination of my initial research, completed whilst a 2014 John W. Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress, it became clear that Moynihan played a crucial role in protecting liberalism’s brightest jewel, Social Security, from conservative dissection. With a case study titled ‘Social Security and the 1982 Midterms’, I sought to use the collections at the British Library to show how and why a strong liberal defence of Social Security in the early 1980s, driven by Moynihan in the Senate and supplemented by the activism of liberal interest groups, dissuaded the Reagan administration from attempting major revisions and had a dramatic impact on the 1982 midterms.

One find in particular allowed me to effectively pinpoint the exact moment a successful liberal backlash to a key facet of Reagan’s conservative agenda started to take hold. In a New York Times article from May 1981, Senator Moynihan penned a response to a recent Senate rebuke of a Reagan Social Security proposal. Having led the argument against Reagan’s plans, Moynihan was able to convince a Republican-dominated Senate to vote 96-0 to reject the entire proposal. However, not only did Moynihan use this space to criticise Reagan’s Social Security plan – arguing that alongside abolishing a 45 year old policy that entitled orphans in foster care to federal assistance, the Reagan administration had sent proposals to Congress to slash retirement benefits at the very same time as the Republican National Committee was mailing a leaflet with the headline ‘President Reagan Keeps Promise, Retirement Benefits Go Untouched’ – but he also attacked the very foundation of the so-called Reagan Revolution; hence his use of the word ‘beyond’ in the title ‘Beyond 96-0.’

‘Remember that the victorious party was not pledged to any radical disruptions of social programs of the kind now being proposed’ Moynihan wrote. Yet ‘one economist after another and, in the end, decisively, Wall Street, offered the view that there was no way that a one-third tax cut could pay for itself.’ As Moynihan shows, ‘one year ago, the President's campaign rhetoric was still full of wishful thinking about major tax cuts without any reductions in Government spending. Despite all of this early supply-side hyperbole, the President's actual program represents a total repudiation of the naive Laffer curve theory that across-the-board tax cuts are self-financing.’ With Moynihan leading the charge against Reagan for the rest of the decade, as David Stockman, Reagan’s first budget director, would later lament in his memoirs, the May 1981 showdown in Congress was the beginning of the end for the Reagan Revolution.

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Above: Reagan addresses Congress on the Program to Economic Recovery (April 28th, 1981). Image from Wikipedia.

Using resources at the British Library such as the above New York Times article has allowed me to discover how the Social Security issue effectively reshaped the contours of Reagan’s America and slowed the pace of the ‘Reagan Revolution’ steam train. Gathering this information has helped me to map out how and why liberals were able to gain such political traction on an issue seen by conservatives to epitomise the supposedly elephantine, bloated nature of the federal government. By discovering some of the varied strategies implemented in order to save Social Security from the conservative chopping board, this research has greatly improved the range and depth of my thesis. My lack of access to such varied materials locally had hindered the progression of this research beforehand. Thus, a research trip to the United States aside, the best (and perhaps only) way to comprehensively research the observations of the American press from the 1980s was at the British Library. The majority of my findings regarding Moynihan and the Social Security battle of the early 1980s will be published in my thesis, which has the working title ‘Standing in Reagan’s Shadow: Liberal Strategies in a Conservative Age.’

 

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