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Idolatry of Ronald Reagan doesn't square with his history

Posted: February 8, 2011 - 12:24pm

Ronald Reagan, one of America’s least-known liberals.

I’m serious. If Reagan were governing today the way he governed back in the day, he would be defaced on tea party placards and dogged by rumors that he was born in Kenya.

Reagan the icon — the one feted by conservatives on his centennial on Sunday — is very different from Reagan the reality, which is why conservatives persist in airbrushing the Reagan record while endeavoring to affix his name to every possible road, bridge, airport and school. And soon enough, each of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates will be insisting that he or she is the true heir to Reagan, seemingly oblivious to the inconvenient truths.

The myth can be reduced to a sentence: Reagan “cut taxes” and “ended the Cold War.” The reality is far more nuanced — starting with the fact that, in his first year as governor of California, he broke a tax-cut campaign promise and signed the largest tax hike in state history, slapping increases on banks, corporations, and inheritances. The increase was worth $6 billion in today’s money.

Suffice it to say that, in today’s Republican Party, Reagan wouldn’t be able to get himself nominated. The antitax zealots at the Club for Growth would kill him with negative TV ads. And because as governor he also signed one of the nation’s first laws legalizing some of the circumstances for abortions (six years before “Roe v. Wade), today’s religious conservatives would bury him in the Iowa caucuses.

If the real Reagan were a first-term president today, the tea party would be branding him a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and clamoring for a right-wing challenger in the next round of primaries, somebody who might deny him renomination.

After all, in 1982 Reagan signed into law two tax increases — one of which was later characterized in a Treasury Department report as the heftiest peacetime tax hike in American history. All told, he gave back roughly one-third of the tax cuts enacted a year earlier. Then, in 1983, breaking a campaign promise to go after entitlement programs, he saved Social Security with a $165 billion bailout by signing a hike in payroll taxes and ushering a new category of recipients into the program: newly hired federal workers. That year, he also hiked the federal gasoline tax. In 1984, he signed a deficit-reduction bill that mandated yet another tax increase.

That was just the first term. After his re-election, Reagan signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which imposed the largest corporate tax hike in history ($120 billion over five years), while closing $300 billion in corporate loopholes. In that same law, Reagan agreed to exempt millions of low-wage earners from paying any income tax.

In today’s conservative parlance, such deeds would be assailed as “socialism.”

And imagine how he would be attacked today for his tolerant immigration policy. In 1986, he signed the last major reform law, mandating a path to citizenship for agricultural and seasonal workers — and offering amnesty to illegal immigrants who had lived here continuously for many years. If Reagan were campaigning with that record today, he’d get whacked so hard by the Republican right he would end up like chastened ex-reformer John McCain, yelling, “Build the dang fence!”

Because Reagan’s tenure is tucked away in the 1980s, the current Republicans who worship the myth are free to indulge their amnesia. Apparently they don’t know, or choose not to acknowledge, that a lot of conservatives constantly groused about Reagan. A common quip at the time was, “It’s not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it’s just that he does not understand the ones he has.” And Jack Pitney, a former national Republican official, once told me about his regular dealings with aggrieved conservatives: “I remember sitting in meetings with those guys. They always seemed to need a box of Di-Gel to get through the day.”

They were particularly upset about Reagan’s outreach to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What you never hear today from the marketers of the myth is that the Republican right went nuts when Reagan was making admirable moves toward arms reduction. They attacked what they called his “grand illusion.” Conservative leader Paul Weyrich declared, “Reagan is a weakened president, weakened in spirit as well as in clout.”

And in 1987, when Reagan and Gorbachev signed the first Cold War treaty that reduced nuclear arsenals (laying the initial groundwork for the reduction pact that President Barack Obama signed the other day), conservative columnist George Will denounced Reagan’s deed as “moral disarmament.”

The factual Reagan is at odds with the Reagan that contemporary acolytes clearly prefer. In the social sphere, he paid only lip service to the antiabortion movement. In the economic sphere, he never came close to balancing the budget. During his tenure, he nearly tripled the budget deficit. He added 61,000 federal workers to the payroll and added a cabinet department (Veterans Affairs). All told, as conservative scholar David Frum pointed out 17 years ago, “Ronald Reagan’s two administrations piled up more debt, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than Roosevelt and Truman had incurred to win World War II.”

Every political movement needs its myths; it’s understandable that Reagan’s fans prefer idolatry to empiricism. But the man is far more interesting than the myth; reality enhances his standing.

What’s most worth celebrating, on the centennial birthday, is his gift for compromise. Guided by his conservative principles, Reagan bent when necessary. He negotiated with the Soviets, and he negotiated with the Democrats in Congress. He embodied Benjamin Franklin’s famous metaphor about the efficacy of political flexibility: “When a broad table is to be made and the edges of the planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint.”

We would all do well to honor that key facet of the Reagan legacy.

• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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