Americans have a nasty habit of creating political demigods, untouchables of one political group or another who, by order of the respective base, shall suffer no critique. Such is the status that former President Ronald Reagan currently enjoys in many conservative circles.
At the 2014 iteration of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Reagan’s name was thrown about in speech after speech as conservative politicians waxed poetic about his legacy.
At one point during the event, Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) offered: “Reagan knew that it was the party Establishment that had lost that election by losing touch and losing credibility. He knew the future of the GOP was not the old Party of Republican insiders, it was a new Party of Conservative Ideas.”
More recently, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as our Ben Bullard put it, has been working pretty hard to “stake out his Reagan territory.” The potential 2016 Presidential contender has publicly praised the Nation’s 40th President on multiple occasions, most often referring exclusively to Reagan’s brand of diplomacy.
In a piece for Breitbart last month, Paul urged fellow Republicans not to warp the former President’s foreign policy and his legacy in general.
I don’t claim to be the next Ronald Reagan nor do I attempt to disparage fellow Republicans as not being sufficiently Reaganesque. But I will remind anyone who thinks we will win elections by trashing previous Republican nominees or holding oneself out as some paragon in the mold of Reagan, that splintering the party is not the route to victory.
I met Ronald Reagan as a teenager when my father was a Reagan delegate in 1976. I greatly admire Reagan’s projection of “Peace through Strength.” I believe, as he did, that our National Defense should be second to none, that defense of the country is the primary Constitutional role of the Federal Government.
In The Washington Times last week, Paul invoked Reagan to rebuke neocon critics of his foreign policy views.
The Senator noted in his piece that foreign policy absolutism is dangerous to the Nation and is the opposite of the strategy used by Reagan in his highly praised dealings with the former Soviet Union.
“If [Reagan] had been bluffing the Soviets with his Strategic Defense Initiative, or using it as leverage in negotiations, it would have been counterproductive to announce that in advance,” Paul argues.
“In fact, Reagan often practiced strategic ambiguity. He thought, as many other presidents have, that we should not announce to our enemies what we might do in every conceivable hypothetical situation.”
Because Reagan is so fondly remembered by so many conservatives, Paul’s public embrace of an understanding of foreign diplomacy similar to that of the 40th President gives him heavy leverage against his neocon detractors.
Unfortunately, the Republican establishment’s “absolutism” extends far beyond foreign policy. And the progressive Mother Jones discovered something that could potentially discredit Paul among many of his Party peers: old videos of the Kentucky Senator speaking ill of the Reagan economic legacy.
“In a variety of campaign appearances that were captured on video, Paul repeatedly compared Reagan unfavorably to Carter on one of Paul’s top policy priorities: government spending. When Paul was a surrogate speaker for his father, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), during the elder Paul’s 2008 presidential quest, his sales pitch included dumping on Reagan for failing to rein in federal budget deficits,” the website declares.
In the videos Paul says things like: “You know, we wanted Reagan to veto a budget or to have balanced budgets and he didn’t do it. And it wasn’t anything personal against him. I think his philosophy was good. I just don’t know that he had the energy or the follow-through to get what we needed.”
And: “People want to like Reagan. He’s very likable. And what he had to say most of the time was a great message. But the deficits exploded under Reagan … But the interesting thing is, if you look at the numbers, tax rates went down in the early ’80s, tax revenue did rise. The reason the deficits exploded is they ignored spending. Domestic spending went up at a greater clip under Reagan than it did under Carter.”
And, so, we all know what the conservative reaction should be: Gasp! Paul said Reagan was worse than Jimmy Carter? What a liberal scumbag. He’s no conservative.
The problem with such a knee-jerk Reagan-loving reaction is that Paul is right.
The 40th President took office as a conservative ideologue, ready to slash entitlements, radically shrink government and cut taxes for all Americans. It’s worth noting at this point that, in the Internet age, given Reagan’s pretty liberal gubernatorial record prior to running for President and his earlier dealings with the FBI, the 40th President would likely have been vetted out of the race by conservatives long before he reached the Oval Office.
Following the release of the Paul videos, Reason did a little analysis of the Senator’s Reagan/Carter deficit claim:
Over an eight-year reign, [Reagan] tallied up $1.4 trillion in deficits, or an average of $177 billion per year. Carter—a famously cheapskate Southern Baptist—racked up just $253 billion over four years, for an average deficit of $63 billion per year. Tax revenue went up sharply under Reagan, for sure, but like a Hollywood big shot, he still managed to spend ever larger amounts, resulting in an average annual deficit of 4.1 percent of GDP. The Peanut Farmer From Plains? A relatively tiny 2.3 percent of GDP.
There was a massive tax cut at the onset of the Reagan Administration. Unfortunately, about one-third of the cut taxes were restored a year later and eventually amounted to a $100 billion hike in taxes. The President referred to this as tax reform, closing loopholes.
To compensate for those deficits, more Reagan taxes followed, including a gas tax hike in 1983. The closing of additional business “loopholes” in 1984 created $50 billion in tax revenues.
Later, the Reagan Administration’s Tax Reform Act of 1986 was successful in lowering individual income tax rates. But it also closed corporate tax loopholes worth about $300 billion and raised corporate taxes by $120 billion over a five-year term.
A realistic look at Reagan’s effort to shrink the size of government also leaves much to be desired.
At the beginning of his Presidency, Reagan set out with the noble goal of slashing $41.1 billion from a total of 83 Federal programs, a goal that included the dissolution of the departments of Education and Energy. But by the time his tenure in the Oval Office came to an end, the President had managed to increase spending on education, Medicare, Social Security and countless other areas of Federal concern. The President even created a new Federal agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs.
In total, more than 60,000 new workers joined the Federal workforce under the “government is not the answer” President.
By 1983, Reagan’s failure to bring Congress on board with a massive scaling back of Social Security led to his acceptance of a $165 billion bailout of the insolvent program — thus dramatically expanding the program and hiking payroll taxes for employers and employees alike.
And to return to foreign policy, if Reagan did win the Cold War, he didn’t do it by wit alone. The President’s blank-check style of funding the Pentagon helped to expand the Navy and nuclear missile arsenal to unprecedented levels. Also unprecedented was the amount of national debt the Gipper racked up while doing so.
As Reagan ended one war, he fully embraced another which had been launched years before by Richard Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. Today, no American is unfamiliar with the War on Drugs or Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Unfortunately, $1 trillion later, people are still failing to say “no.”
The bottom line in all of this is that, while a shining conservative next to a President like Barack Obama, Reagan’s conservatism couldn’t hold a candle to a few libertarian-leaning politicians in office today.
There’s a reason that establishment Republicans have worked so hard to place Reagan on a pedestal. For starters, his speeches were rhetorical goldmines with quips like “government is not the solution to our problem.” But even more valuable to today’s establishment Republican is that passing Reagan off as the epitome of conservatism suddenly makes it pretty easy to be a conservative.