The Reagan Litmus Test
On July 4, U.S. officials, foreign dignitaries and conservative luminaries gathered outside the American embassy in London to unveil a $1 million statue of Ronald Reagan. As it turns out, the timing was more than a little ironic. Because even as the Gipper was honored in Britain, it's increasingly clear he would have no place in today's Republican Party.
From Grover Norquist's anti-tax promise and the Republican Study Committee's "cut, cap and balance" pledge to the draconian anti-abortion oath of the Susan B. Anthony List, hardline conservative litmus tests are proliferating at a dizzying pace. And Ronald Reagan would have failed them all.
If a reanimated Ronald Reagan suddenly appeared in 2011, there is little question his GOP descendants would brand him a Republican In Name Only (RINO) and cast off him off into the wilderness. Here's why:
- Reagan tripled the national debt
- Reagan raised taxes 11 times
- Reagan expanded the size of government
- Reagan supported the "socialist" Earned Income Tax Credit
- Reagan negotiated with terrorists in Tehran
- Reagan sought to eliminate nuclear weapons
- Reagan gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants
- Reagan approved protectionist trade barriers
- Reagan signed abortion rights law in California
- Reagan eventually debunked AIDS myths Republicans continued to perpetuate
1. Reagan Tripled the National Debt
As most analysts predicted, Reagan's massive $749 billion supply-side tax cuts in 1981 quickly produced even more massive annual budget deficits. Combined with his rapid increase in defense spending, Reagan delivered not the balanced budgets he promised, but record-settings deficits. Even his OMB alchemist David Stockman could not obscure the disaster with his famous "rosy scenarios."
Forced to raise taxes twice to avert financial catastrophe, the Gipper nonetheless presided over a tripling of the American national debt to nearly $3 trillion. By the time he left office in 1989, Ronald Reagan more than equaled the entire debt burden produced by the previous 200 years of American history. It's no wonder Stockman lamented last year:
"[The] debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party's embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don't matter if they result from tax cuts."
And that would be a big problem for Utah Senator Mike Lee and the Republican Study Committee now pushing the government-gutting "cut, cap and balance" plan. With its draconian limit on federal spending at 18% of GDP, President Reagan would have broken that promise every year he was in office. And the supposed great tax-cutter would have been in violation of the Constitution's new balanced budget amendment eight years running.
2. Reagan Raised Taxes 11 Times
As ThinkProgress noted, the inedible image of Ronald Reagan the tax cutter is "false mythology." (It is also worth noting that it was President Obama and not Reagan who delivered the largest two year tax cut in American history.) While Governor Reagan doubled California's state spending and signed the biggest tax hike up to that point, as President he raised taxes in seven of his eight years in office. As former GOP Senator Alan Simpson, who called Reagan "a dear friend," told NPR, "Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times in his administration -- I was here."
His hagiographer Grover Norquist may be the man behind the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project to "to encourage the naming of landmarks, buildings, roads, etc. after the Gipper." But as he did with Oklahoma reactionary Tom Coburn, Norquist would have to conclude that the tax-raising Reagan "lied his way into office."
3. Reagan Expanded the Size of Government
Marking Reagan's 100th birthday earlier this year, Sarah Palin told the Reaganauts assembled by the Young Americans for Freedom, "We need to stop spending and cut government back down to size." If that's the case, her role model should be Democrat Bill Clinton and not Republican Ronald Reagan.
As USA Today pointed out five years ago, measured as a percentage of gross domestic product, average annual federal spending dropped far more under Bill Clinton (-1.8%) than Ronald Reagan (-0.6%). And as Slate's Michael Kinsley explained ten years ago in marking Reagan's 90th birthday:
Federal government spending was a quarter higher in real terms when Reagan left office than when he entered. As a share of GDP, the federal government shrank from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent--a whopping one percentage point. The federal civilian work force increased from 2.8 million to 3 million. (Yes, it increased even if you exclude Defense Department civilians. And, no, assuming a year or two of lag time for a president's policies to take effect doesn't materially change any of these results.)
Under eight years of Big Government Bill Clinton, to choose another president at random, the federal civilian work force went down from 2.9 million to 2.68 million. Federal spending grew by 11 percent in real terms--less than half as much as under Reagan. As a share of GDP, federal spending shrank from 21.5 percent to 18.3 percent--more than double Reagan's reduction, ending up with a federal government share of the economy about a tenth smaller than Reagan left behind.
As the Gipper's biographer Lou Cannon aptly summed it up, "He was no Tea Partier."
4. Reagan Supported the "Socialist" Earned Income Tax Credit
Both during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidates and commentators blasted Barack Obama's proposals to offer Americans expanded tax credits as "socialism", "welfare" and worse. If so, they should also be directing their ire at Ronald Reagan.
While virtually all working Americans pay the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes (levies increased by President Reagan), many don't pay federal income tax thanks to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted in 2005, the EITC was not only very successful in lowering poverty, the provision "has enjoyed substantial bipartisan support. President Reagan, President George H. W. Bush, and President Clinton all praised it and proposed expansions in it."
While many of his conservative heirs now express disdain for the working poor, Ronald Reagan championed the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit. As the American Prospect recalled in 2006:
Almost 20 years ago, as he signed into law the tax bill expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, President Ronald Reagan hailed it as "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress."
5. Reagan Negotiated with Terrorists in Tehran.
Criticizing President Obama as weak on Iran, Sarah Palin declared in December that "just as Ronald Reagan once denounced an 'evil empire' and looked forward to a time when communism was left on the 'ash heap of history,' we should look forward to a future where the twisted ideology and aggressive will to dominate of Khomeini and his successors are consigned to history's dustbin."
That would be the same Ronald Reagan whose policy consisted of giving the mullahs in Iran a cake, a Bible - and U.S. arms.
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself, including "a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders" and "and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.'"
The rest, as they say, is history. After his initial denials, President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987 and acknowledge he indeed swapped arms for hostages (video here):
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
6. Reagan Sought to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons
In late 2010, hard-line Republicans opposed President Obama's new START treaty calling for joint reductions in the American and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Sadly for GOP hawks, it was Ronald Reagan and not Barack Obama who declared, "m]y dream...became a world free of nuclear weapons."
And as the Washington Monthly recalled in 2003, Reagan's idealism startled and shocked his advisers and allies:
Driven by this dream, Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev and initiated a series of negotiations that ultimately alarmed everyone in his administration. Hardliners like Patrick Buchanan, Richard Perle, and Caspar Weinberger reacted in horror to the very idea of engaging the Soviets in such talks, warning against the "grand illusion" of peace. "Reagan is a weakened president, weakened in spirit as well as clout," echoed New Right leader Paul Weyrich in The Washington Post. Administration pragmatists like George Shultz and Robert McFarlane, who supported negotiations but believed in deterrence, were shocked by how far Reagan took them. At the Reykjavik summit, he and Gorbachev almost agreed to the "zero option" to eliminate both sides' thermonuclear arms. Reagan's unwillingness to give up his cherished missile-defense program doomed the agreement, though the talks did yield the signature arms-reduction pact of his presidency, the 1987 INF treaty.
7. Reagan Gave Amnesty to Millions of Illegal Immigrants
Codifying the growing xenophobia within the Republican Party, the 2008 GOP platform insisted:
"We oppose amnesty. The rule of law suffers if government policies encourage or reward illegal activity. The American people's rejection of en masse legalizations is especially appropriate given the federal government's past failures to enforce the law."
Which is why, as ThinkProgress again helpfully highlighted, conservatives are now so eager to hush up RINO Reagan's history on immigration:
Reagan signed into law a bill that made any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty. The bill was sold as a crackdown, but its tough sanctions on employers who hired undocumented immigrants were removed before final passage. The bill helped 3 million people and millions more family members gain American residency. It has since become a source of major embarrassment for conservatives.
Reagan's tactics were flexible. In autos, machine tools, and steel, his administration subjected foreign producers to so-called voluntary export restraints. In semiconductors, Reagan officials negotiated an agreement to secure a specific share of the Japanese market for U.S. companies, and then imposed tariffs on Japanese electronics imports when Tokyo briefly refused to keep a promise to halt semiconductor dumping.
But it was Reagan's decisive intervention to save legendary American motorcycle maker Harley Davidson which drew the ire of conservatives at the time, if not now. The libertarian Cato Institute groused about the 49.4% import tariff on foreign motorcycles Reagan authorized in 1983:
Last spring, the import duties on large motorcycles were raised drastically. By any economic criterion, the new tariff is counterproductive, and the Reagan administration was fully aware of it. The decision is thus an interesting case study in the political economy of protectionism.
9. Reagan Signed Abortion Rights Law in California
Despite his paeans to the pro-life crowd, RINO Reagan did very little to advance their radical anti-abortion agenda. As ThinkProgress summarized his record on reproductive rights:
As governor of California in 1967, Reagan signed a bill to liberalize the state's abortion laws that "resulted in more than a million abortions." When Reagan ran for president, he advocated a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited all abortions except when necessary to save the life of the mother, but once in office, he "never seriously pursued" curbing choice.
Remember that Reagan put Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, who in Planned Parenthood v. Casey advocated the "undue burden" standard for protecting women's access to abortion services. For the folks at the Susan B. Anthony List now waging war on reproductive rights, Reagan would have been beyond the pale.
10. Reagan Eventually Debunked AIDS Myths Republicans Continued to Perpetuate
Not wanting to anger his allies on the Christian right when it came to what they deemed the "gay plague," Reagan remained silent on the exploding AIDS epidemic throughout most of his presidency. And when he did speak up in 1985 (as he did at the urging of staffer and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts), Reagan ignored both basic science and basic compassion in setting back the cause of truth and public health:
"I'm glad I'm not faced with that problem today [sending children to school where another student has AIDS] and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it...And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said 'This we know for a fact, that it is safe.' And until they do I think we have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it."
The next day, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and the chief scientists at the National Institutes of Health called a news conference to correct President Reagan's tragic error and confirm that AIDS was a blood-borne sexually transmitted disease not spread by casual contact. In what would be the first high-impact celebrity intervention among Republicans, it took a plea from Elizabeth Taylor to get Ronald Reagan to deliver a speech at the 1987 meeting of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research:
As dangerous and deadly as AIDS is, many of the fears surrounding it are unfounded. These fears are based on ignorance... The Public Health Service has stated that there's no medical reason for barring a person with the virus from any routine school or work activity. There's no reason for those who carry the AIDS virus to wear a scarlet A. AIDS is not a casually contagious disease. We're still learning about how AIDS is transmitted, but experts tell us you don't get it from telephones or swimming pools or drinking fountains. You don't get it from shaking hands or sitting on a bus or anywhere else, for that matter. And most important, you don't get AIDS by donating blood. Education is critical to clearing up the fears. Education is also crucial to stopping the transmission of the disease.
Fourteen years later, then Senate Majority Leader and physician Bill Frist declined to say whether he thought HIV-AIDS could be transmitted through tears or sweat, as a disputed federal education program championed by some conservative groups had suggested.
And so it goes. Reviewing the state of the Republican Party, conservative columnist David Brooks lamented today that "the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party" which "has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative." Given its required pledges and near-sacred oaths, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen aptly called the GOP simply the "Grand Old Cult."
A cult, it turns out, that would eject its former icon, Ronald Reagan. And by so doing, today's Republicans would fail the Reagan Litmus Test.
(For more debunking of the right-wing mythology surrounding Ronald Reagan, see these recent articles from the Washington Post, CNN, ThinkProgress and CBS. For the definitive account of the conservative revisionist history project, see Will Bunch's excellent book, Tear Down This Myth.)