Political Hay

The Legacy Chase

All is liberal vanity these days.

By 12.4.13


Legacies as a concept are deeply embedded in our legal system. A person with assets writes a will designating which ones will go to which relative, friend, charity, or others. 

Not long ago some imaginative news media person decided to call the in-office record of elected officials “legacies.” In monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, the notion was being repeated by reporter after reporter.

The distinction between a legacy of assets and an ephemeral one such as a politician’s record has been lost among the media. A legacy is a gift; thus, the politician is bestowing his policy or legislative gift on his grateful recipients. Or, shall we say, his loyal subjects?

Nowadays, politicians thirst after “legacies” to leave behind. Two examples: Barack Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown.

Mr. Obama was determined to remake the entire system of health care that would ultimately force all Americans into federal single-payer plans. He labored mightily to get the Affordable Care Act passed and did, with only Democrat votes. There was no meaningful consultation with Republicans, since Obama considered them unworthy to discuss the issue.

Obama then crossed the country doing what he most likes to do: giving campaign speeches to sell Obamacare to the public. After three years and several million dollars, its vaunted website was expected to begin signing up a large number of Americans when it rolled out in October. It was a dud and only a relative handful signed up. Never popular in polls, Obamacare now has growing numbers of people opposed to it, especially after four million people have had their private policies canceled.

Assuming the website is fixed at some point, criticism of Obamacare is so wide and deep that Obama is now sitting on a “legacy” that he will wish he didn’t have.

In California, Jerry Brown, in his first iteration as Governor in the mid-1970s, granted public employee unions the right to collective bargaining. This led to a steady growth in pensions and health care benefits demanded by the unions which through large war chests contributed to Democrat legislators to get their way. 

By 2010, when Brown defeated Meg Whitman to return to Sacramento, overly-generous pensions were a major driver of the state’s huge deficits. Brown could have persuaded the unions to swallow hard and accept pensions reform, but he did not. Instead, he nibbled around the edges and moved on to what he decided would be his “legacy,” the yesteryear idea of a high-speed train from Northern to Southern California.

Brown, rail buffs, and construction unions sold voters on a starter bond issue to build that first miles of rail in the Central Valley, between two cities. There was, however, a clinker in the ballot issue. It promised the sources for all funds for the $68 billion project would be identified before it could be built. Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled last week that only $6 billion has been identified and that all the rest is “theoretical.” Unless the high-speed rail organization can satisfy that requirement, the project may be dead. Some legacy: 130 miles of railroad track from nowhere to nowhere.

Ronald Reagan put the legacy business in perspective in 1992 when he said, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.” He’d leave the rest to public opinion and historians. He’s done pretty well by them.

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About the Author

Peter Hannaford, who died on September 5,  was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. His most recent book, Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69, of which he is editor, has just been published.