Book Review: Between Promise and Policy

The following was originally written December 28th, 2009, and refers to the 2002 book by John Karaagac. It can be purchased via Amazon here.

This is the book that your grandparents don’t want you to read. Popular political lore equates Ronnie Reagan to a policymaking version of Luke Skywalker: the lone man who brought down the evil empire. Actually, Reagan proponents might consider such an analogy a slight. As we’ve heard all too many times from grandpa, not only did Reagan defeat the oppressing curtain of Soviet communism; he also drastically reduced the size of government, lowered taxes, kept crack dealers off of the streets, and resuscitated the American economy via empowerment of the individual. Had it not been for Ray-Gun’s massive arms buildup and rhetorical bravado, the Cold War may very well have lasted decades longer than it did. And if it weren’t for his rollback of the welfare state and supply side economic policies (i.e. lower corporate taxes, less regulation of major industries), we may still be mired in the hard times bestowed to us by Jimmy Carter.

Not so fast, claims Karaagac. As the title of his work suggests, Karaagac argues that in almost all of these cases there existed a massive gap between stated goals and achievements and actually implemented policies. In short, many of the Reagan narratives we’ve grown up with are patently untrue.

The image of a confident, self-assured politician belied the reality of a president who cared not for details and who left policymaking to a crew of power hungry subordinates. As a result, numerous policy initiatives were botched. Karaagac provides in-depth case studies of Reagan’s efforts to slash federal spending, reorganize HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development), revitalize the military, and more. Throughout the studies, we are left with the vision of an unskilled policymaker who simply struck the right chords with the American populace at the right time.

This is also the book that your Poly Sci 101 teachers don’t want you to read. Based on the above account, one might think Karaagac is nothing more than a leftist Reagan basher hoping to sully the reputation of a Republican demigod. Yet this could not be further from the truth. Karaagac utilizes the Reagan presidency as an especially pertinent case study in the nature of modern American presidential politics. While he does not absolve Reagan of blame for his numerous policy missteps, Karaagac notes that such inconsistencies exist within any administration and are largely the result of American democracy itself, which requires constant re-alignment and ideological “conversions”.

Successful presidential aspirants must craft a message that first appeals to the purists within their party: in Reagan’s case, this meant pushing supply side economics and hawkish foreign policies, during primary seasons. Once a candidate wins their party’s endorsement, they must recalibrate the message to a more centrist national electorate, one that is nonetheless split across fifty unique territories, which each have a unique set of concerns and values. After election, presidents must deal with a myriad of competing factors and institutions: Congress, the entrenched bureaucracy, the military, lobbyists, campaign advisors, etc. This makes reform, even for the most idealistic of candidates, a tricky endeavor at best.

Between Promise and Policy is an excellently written, well researched book by a man I happen to know as one of the most engaging and erudite professors out there. For the policy wonk on both sides of the political divide, this book is a must read. For the rest of us? My synopsis should suffice.

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