Why Obama Played the David Stockman Card

When President Obama in his speech on deficit reduction last week cited “Ronald Reagan’s own budget director” as a critic of the House Republican budget, there was little doubt as to which of the three Office of Management and Budget (OMB) directors under Reagan he was referring to.

Thirty years after then-OMB Director David Stockman was caught on the record belittling his boss’s tax cuts as a “Trojan horse” for lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans, he’s at it again.  Days before Obama’s address, Stockman told the online publication TPMDC’s Brian Beutler that the GOP budget “doesn’t address in any serious or courageous way the issue of the near- and medium-term deficit.”  Although the former Michigan GOP congressman did say he applauds the efforts of the Republican budget to deal with entitlements, he dismissed the idea that the plan would do anything to turn unemployment around.  “This isn’t 1980,” said Stockman.  “It’s not morning again in America.  It’s late afternoon or even sunset.”

Now, no one can take away that Stockman, with brilliance and attention to detail, pursued the Reagan agenda of lower taxes and cutting domestic spending with zeal and intellectual firepower in the exciting, revolutionary days of 1981.

But for all of his commitment to the conservative agenda, Stockman is still haunted by the series of interviews he gave to William Greider that were eventually published in Atlantic Monthly in 1981 that voiced doubts on that agenda.  Thus, it is no surprise to see Obama dust off the direct descendant of Reaganomics for his speech attacking the Ryan budget.

Some say Stockman was untrustworthy well before he became, at 34, the youngest-ever Office of Management and Budget director.

At Michigan State University from 1964 to 1968, the young Stockman was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement—so much so, Ronald Brownstein and Nina Easton wrote in Reagan’s Ruling Class, that 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 received a degree).

With help from then-Harvard Prof. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 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, Stockman returned to Michigan (where his mother was Berrien County GOP chairman) and began to plan a bid for Congress against seven-term Republican Rep. Ed Hutchinson, dubbed by the Almanac of American Politics “the most conservative member of the Michigan delegation.”

“I felt 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,” Lee Boothby, lawyer and 4th District Chairman for Barry Goldwater in 1964, told me years later.  Hutchinson finally opted against running again and backed Stockman.  But, Stockman’s early planning for a race against the incumbent had paid off, and he won easily. 

Stockman compiled a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 89% in his four years in Congress.  But unlike many fellow House conservatives, he backed John Connally for President rather than Reagan.  After Connally got out, Stockman switched to Reagan and even impersonated old boss Anderson and later Jimmy Carter in preparation for debates with the Republican nominee. 
Understanding why President Obama would dredge up David Stockman to attack a conservative budget is not that difficult when one considers Stockman’s entire past record.  As to why Stockman would inject himself into the current budget debate, another budget director under Reagan, Jim Miller, offers this explanation:  “Unfortunately, David Stockman seems to be saying: ‘If I couldn’t do it, nobody can, and any attempt to do so can’t be either serious or courageous.’”
The fact is, the Ryan plan is both, and is more realistic in eliminating the deficit and harnessing the national debt than any plan proffered by the administration.