“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
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.