Dick Darman, RIP
I have a framed copy of the cover from October 7, 1991 National Review on the wall of my office. The cover is a cartoon version of a film noir movie that stars former OMB Director Dick Darman looking like a Sam Spade-like private detective. The headline, that is, the title of the movie, says "Dead Wrong Again."
In many ways, that cover says much about how Darman, who died last week, will be remembered.
He was considered to be brilliant, but also very manipulative. Indeed, most people today would call him manipulative first, and then brilliant.
He understood the pure politics of the budget better than most of the others who have ever had the top spot at OMB, and his success at getting some impossible things done was based on that deep understanding.
But he's not likely to be remembered by everyone fondly. The term "Darmanesque" is still used to describe a strategy that is overly and unncessarily clever. The term comes from what budget observers had to do while Darman was in office: wonder more about why he was proposing something about than the substance of what was being proposed.
Fifteen years or so after Darman left OMB, there is no easier way to increase the blood pressure of Republican tax cut hardliners than to mention his name in their presence.
Budget analysts still bristle at some of Darman's more egregious maneuvers, like taking the deficit increasing parts of the savings and loan bailout off-budget but leaving the deficit reducing parts on budget. Darman's performance at one congressional hearing where he said any revenue proposal had to meet "the duck" test (If it walks and quacks like a tax, it must be a tax) is considered a classic. And most older budget analysts remember (or, perhaps, can't forget) how Darman "reduced" the deficit one year by moving a military pay day from the last few days in one fiscal year to the first day in the next.
Once he left OMB, Darman seldom if ever talked about the budget publicly. He was unavailable to reporters, didn't do interviews, and I don't think every testified at a congressional hearing.
But the fact that his career at OMB is still a wonder to many tells you everything you need to know about the impact he had while he was there.