David Stockman: No Revolutionary of the Right

“Soldier of a Revolution…Stockman Was the Face of Reaganomics.”

So read the banner headline of the business page of the Washington Post on March 27.  In the wake of his indictment for allegedly defrauding investors in an auto parts company he once headed, David Stockman is being increasingly recalled in the national media for his stint as director of the Office of Management and Budget during Ronald Reagan’s first term.

There is, to be sure, a strong case  to be made that the high priest of budget cuts and Reagan’s historic first budget was indeed the face of Reaganomics — at least in 1981.  As Ronald Brownstein and Nina Easton wrote in their profile of the budget chief in Reagan’s Ruling Class, “Stockman’s early offensive on the budget — forcing unprecedented cuts onto social programs. . .made him the most visible member of the Administration in early 1981. . .Stockman exhibited such zeal and grabbed so many headlines in the first few months of the Reagan Administration that budget often appeared to be not merely the major but the only issue in Washington.”

My friend and mentor Allan Ryskind, longtime Capitol Hill editor of HUMAN EVENTS, seconded this view of Stockman, who spent two decades on Wall Street after leaving the budget office in 1985. “I certainly remember the briefings for reporters on the [1981] Reagan budget,” he recalled, “and he knew everything about the budget, all the details, and answered every question.  At the end, he would have everyone eating out of his hand.”

Fine.  There is a strong case that the bright, detail-oriented former Michigan congressman was indeed a “soldier of a revolution” and even “the face of Reaganomics” — although one gets the distinct impression that such sobriquets are being bestowed upon Stockman by the Washington Post less because of nay historic niche and more because he’s under indictment for fraud.

But was Dave Stockman a committed revolutionary for conservatism?  Hardly.

At Michigan State University from 1964-68, the young Stockman was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement — so much so, according to biographers Brownstein and Easton, he had “his own ‘Red Squad file compiled by the state’s anti-communist police unit.”  After graduating cum laude, Stockman went on to Harvard Divinity School — “hiding out from the draft like many others,” recalled pundit David Broder in his reminiscence of first meeting the young Michiganian.  (Stockman never finished or received a degree).

At Harvard, Stockman was a live-in baby-sitter for then-Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who recalled to Broder his young houseguest’s rabid interest in politics.  With help from Moynihan, young Stockman went to Washington to be a staffer for the House Republican Conference in 1970.  Under its chairman, liberal GOP Rep. John Anderson of Illinois, Stockman rose to be conference executive director in two years.

In 1975, after his mother was elected Republican chairman of Berrien County, Michigan, Stockman returned home and began to plot a bid for Congress in the 4th District against seven-term Republican Rep. Edward Hutchinson.  Exhausted from his nationally-televised stint as ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and a surprisingly strong Democratic challenge in the so-called Watergate Year of 1974, Hutchinson was uncertain about whether to run again in ’76.  But, as he would make clear in both letters and phone calls to me years later, the congressman dubbed by the Almanac of American Politics “the most conservative member of the Michigan delegation” did not want to be succeeded by David Stockman. 

“Ed and I used to talk and he would tell me how David was back here every weekend laying the groundwork for a campaign,” said Lee Boothby, Berrien County attorney and 4th District chairman for Barry Goldwater in 1964,  “I felt David it was unconscionable that David was using his position as the executive director of the House Republican Conference to run against a sitting Republican congressman — and a good conservative at that.”  Boothby, who had competed in the four-person primary and lost to Hutchinson when the 4th  District was last open in 1962, pointed out that Stockman had also cultivated the executives of Whirlpool, easily the largest employer in the district.

Hutchinson finally decided, according to Boothby, that “he could win again by going back every weekend and every day Congress was out of session and campaigning but that was not the voters were paying him to do — campaign all the time.”  So Hutchinson finally opted against another race and supported a late-starting campaign by Boothby, his 1962 primary opponent.  The significant difference between Stockman and Boothby was “he was for Jerry Ford, a Michiganian, and I was for Ronald Reagan for President,”  But Stockman’s early planning for a race against the incumbent paid off and he won easily.

Stockman’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating was 89% –pretty good, but not surprising in the most Republican district in the Water Wonderland.  As biographers Brownstein and Easton put it, “Once in Congress, Stockman assumed a position on the right, leading the charge against social programs and government intervention in the economy.  He took on all the familiar conservative shibboleths: welfare, legal services, federal spending, and government regulation.” 

But, in contrast to many other House conservatives such as Rep. Jack Kemp (R.-N.Y.), Stockman did not back Ronald Reagan for President.  Instead he was with John Connally — although, as Michigan Connally leader (and later U.S. ambassador to Italy) Peter Secchia recalled, “I don’t remember what Stockman did in the campaign, but Connally was out very quickly.”  He switched support to Reagan and impersonated old boss Anderson and then Jimmy Carter in mock debates with the Republican nominee.  In large part through an insider’s campaign led by Kemp and other lawmakers, Stockman was named director of the Offfice of Management and Budget — at 34, the youngest person ever to head OMB since it was created at the Bureau of the Budget in 1921.

No one can take away the brilliance, attention to detail, and zeal with which Stockman pursued the Reagan agenda of lower taxes and spending in the early, exciting, revolutionary days of 1981.  He even pursued the idea of slashing certain Social Security benefits — an area where Reagan would not even go, eventually disowning the thought of his budget baron (even though the President himself once favored the same proposal). 

However, all of his fearless pursuit of the conservative agenda in 1981 remains under a shadow because of the now-celebrated interview published by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor William Greider in the Atlantic Monthly in December of that year (but released in advance a month earlier).  In his sessions with Greider over a period of a year, the architect of the Reagan budget and its chief advocate voiced doubts about whether the Administration agenda would work, foresaw huge deficits rather than the balanced budget he was publicly predicting, and — in a blatant slap to Kemp and fellow pioneers of supply side economics who saw him as a comrade — declared “supply side economics” was just a new name for old “trickle down” policies that favor the rich.  He even dubbed the historic Reagan tax cut “a Trojan horse” to bring down the top income tax rate.

“None of us really understands what’s going on with all these numbers,” Greider quoted Stockman as saying.

President Reagan was clearly disappointed and took his budget chief “to the woodshed.”  Stockman offered to resign over a private lunch with the President November 12, the offer being refused by a President who hated to fire anyone.  Stockman thanked him for a “second chance” and served through the end of the first Reagan term.

An Opinion:  A solider in the Revolution?  The face of Reaganomics?  Probably for the first year.  But there was also a side to Stockman that conservatives came to dislike and distrust after the Atlantic interview.  Former opponent Lee Boothby was also upset by the Post headline because he felt “David betrayed Reagan.  He had no guiding star — it was just whatever opportunity opened up.”  Reminded of it as David Stockman goes through a personal ordeal that has put him in the headlines for the first time in a generation, this reporter concludes that while leaders do indeed go through changes in their views that are sincere, that self-reflection is a good thing, and one should not judge someone solely on past opinions and associations, he also understands why conservatives are increasingly skeptical of present candidates for President who have had late and dramatic changes — and no grounding in conservative theory and great works.  Are they “Saul on the Road to Damascus” or simply “Saul on the Road to Des Moines?”