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Pile of Manure By: Dr. Paul Kengor
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 09, 2008

“It reminds me of the story about that little boy … in this room filled with manure.”
—Hillary Clinton, April 1

As Senator Hillary Clinton presses on in her battle to win more primaries on the road to the Democratic convention, she remains an optimist, and she invokes Ronald Reagan—or, rather, an anecdote popularized by Ronald Reagan.

The occasion was Erie, Pennsylvania on April 1, when Mrs. Clinton offered an anecdote missed by almost everyone, with the exception of reporter Jim Brown of OneNewsNow.com, who caught her on tape. Telling her supporters that America has “big challenges” but also “great opportunities,” Mrs. Clinton invoked a parable: “It reminds me of the story about that little boy. Have you heard this story where, you know, a man walks by the barn and sees this little boy in this room filled with manure? And he’s [the boy] standing there and he’s digging, and he’s digging, and he’s digging. And the man says, ‘Son, what are you doing up to your hips in manure with that little shovel?’ The boy says, ‘Well, with this much manure around, there’s got to be a pony—and I’m going to find it.’”

Mrs. Clinton’s use of that anecdote is the first time I’ve heard it from a public figure since Ronald Reagan. Yet, the way in which the two figures apply the anecdote could not be more different, and is quite revealing:

When Reagan became president in January 1981, his first priority was to turn around the terrible economy of the latter 1970s. Without that reversal, none of his other goals, domestic or international, were possible. Reagan’s references to the economy that first year were ubiquitous. He believed that out-of-control spending, regulation, and taxes had sapped the American economy of its vitality, and particularly its ability to bounce back after a recession. The economy needed to be freed in order to perform.

The prescription that Reagan recommended rested on four pillars: tax cuts, deregulation, reductions in the rate of growth of government spending, and a stable, carefully managed growth of the money supply. Among the various tax cuts, the federal income tax reduction was the centerpiece. He would secure a 25 percent across-the-board reduction in federal income tax rates over a three-year period beginning in October 1981. Eventually, the upper income marginal tax rate was dropped from 70 percent to 28 percent.

That said, cutting taxes proved less challenging than staying the course during the two years that followed, as the stimulant effect was slow in kicking in. Reagan’s “troika” of James Baker, Michael Deaver, and Ed Meese all recall the doubt in the first two years of the economic program. Naysayers outside and inside the White House pushed Reagan hard to modify course. Still, as Baker noted, there was “no way” there would be a change in direction because an unyielding Reagan was convinced of the wisdom of his economic strategy and the free-market theories it rested upon.

Reagan’s advisers remember that he incessantly told a specific story during this period: There was a father with two boys—a pessimist and an optimist. The father placed the pessimist in a room full of new toys. He placed the optimist in a room with a pile of manure. When he returned, the pessimist was crying and throwing a fit, complaining that he had no toys to play with. He went to the other room and found the optimist digging doggedly through the pile of manure. When the father asked the optimist what he was doing, the boy replied: “I know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”

That optimist was Reagan. He went against his staff non-stop in this period. An exasperated aide told Time: “He is absolutely convinced that there will be a big recovery. He is an optimist. My God is he an optimist!”

Eventually, the tax cuts paid off, fueling an unprecedented peacetime expansion of the economy, and, indeed, giving the economy the freedom to bounce back from later recessions—of which Bill Clinton was a major beneficiary when he was sworn in as president in January 1993. The 1991-92 recession that Bill Clinton railed against as a candidate quickly evaporated before he took office, paving the way for a superb economy through his two terms ahead.

That’s what Reagan had in mind with the anecdote about the pile of manure.

As for Mrs. Clinton … let’s just say that she is not planning a 25 percent across-the-board cut in income taxes. Quite the contrary, when she speaks of “big challenges” and “great opportunities,” she is referring to an unprecedented expansion of the government’s role in a host of entirely new interventions, from national healthcare to her recommendation last September that every newborn American infant begin life with a $5,000 government bond.

Ronald Reagan shared that story on behalf of the power of the individual, the entrepreneur, the everyday citizen, who he believed should have more control over his or her money—a personal liberation that would spring a larger macro-economic liberation. Mrs. Clinton hopes to further empower the public sector, which equates to higher taxes in order to pay the costs of the intervention.

The former was a victory for your wallet; the latter means something else entirely: hold on to your wallet. And there ain’t no pony in that pile of manure.

Paul Kengor is author of God and George W. Bush (HarperCollins, 2004), professor of political science, and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).

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