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Reagan is Conservatism’s Patron Saint But Would Never Get Elected By Today’s GOP

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan

Image via Wikipedia

Aside from Feb. 6th being Super Bowl Sunday, it was also what would’ve been President Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.  As Reagan is considered a hero by many on the right, there have been remembrances, dedications, shout outs, flashbacks, and countless other looks back on Reagan and his legacy in the last week.  Of course, folks on the left are having none of that, understandably choosing to focus more on those “accomplishments” that they feel did more bad than good.

I (as is often the case) am in the middle on Reagan.  I wouldn’t call him a hero, but then again, I wouldn’t try to back over him with a MARTA bus, either.  But I’m pretty convinced that based on his overall record, if an exact Reagan clone popped up today and attempted to run for President saying he would do exactly as Reagan did and be exactly as Reagan was, he wouldn’t even make it out of the primaries.  Why?  Simple.  Reagan doesn’t fit the mold of today’s Republican.

First, there is his track record on taxes.  In 1981, Reagan signed the The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 also known as the ERTA or “Kemp-Roth Tax Cut.”  The top marginal rate for personal income taxes went from 70% to 50%, and the bottom rate dropped from 14% to 11%.   In general, the Act lowered marginal tax rates on average 23% across the board.  He also lowered taxes in 1986.  After that, the top marginal rate was 28%.  While tax revenues decreased over the short term, over the long term there was not only an increase in the amount of tax revenues to the government, but also a long period of economic growth.  But, that’s not the entire story.

As the budget deficit grew, Reagan knew something had to be done.  So, he signed into law legislation that, in essence, were tax increases.   Bills signed in 1982 and 1984 closed tax loopholes and increased the tax base by making more transactions taxable.  The 1986 reform bill eliminated many deductions that high income earners had been allowed to use, increasing their tax bills.  In the end, his tax increases actually increased tax revenue to the government and offset much of the revenue lost from the earlier tax cuts.

In 1982, Reagan led efforts to privatize Social Security.  Not only did it not work, but (as is usually the case in midterms) the GOP lost many seats in the following elections.  In 1983 he signed legislation that bailed out Social Security.  Pricetag:  $165 billion. Results of the bailout included higher  payroll taxes for higher income earners and the self-employed, expanded the system to include federal workers, and made Social Security benefits taxable.

These tax increases are rarely mentioned.  In today’s environment, once it came to light, the Reagan-clone would get skewered for ever considering tax increases as fiscal policy.

The national debt also tripled under Reagan.  It went over $1 trillion during his first year, and was $3 trillion when he left.  Of course, that was a bipartisan effort, as the House was under Democrat control all 8 years of his presidency, and the Senate was for 2 of his 8 years.  But evidently, veto wasn’t an option.  Of course, many will say that much of the spending was to counter the Soviet Union.  But SOMEONE has to account for the money vacuum that was SDI, which never worked.

Among other things that are rarely mentioned:

  • Reagan promised to reduce the size of government, in part by eliminating the Departments of Energy and Education.  Instead, he added a new Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • There was little done in the way to reduce government spending over Reagan’s 2 terms.
  • Many will always repeat Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and say “see?  you have to be tough!”  In actuality, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly agreed to eliminate ALL nuclear weapons from each country’s arsenal.  Plus, to help Gorbachev enact reform, the US reduced defense spending in the latter part of Reagan’s second term.  How’s that for “peace through strength?”

Finally, the the proverbial straw that would bring our Reagan-clone’s hopes to an end–and yet one more point rarely mentioned–is immigration.  In 1982, Reagan signed a bill that allowed any illegal alien in the US before that year to be eligible for amnesty.  Yep, blanket amnesty.  In today’s environment, that would be a big no-no.

In the end, Reagan gains sainthood by default.  For those keeping up with conservative politics, there is no one else that can take his place.  Nixon resigned.  Ford was considered weak.  Bush I lost his reelection bid despite removing Saddam Hussein from Kuwait (taxes played a role in his defeat).  Bush II had two terms, but many on the right don’t consider him conservative enough.  So who is left?  No one but the Gipper.  But he’d never make it today.

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5 responses to “Reagan is Conservatism’s Patron Saint But Would Never Get Elected By Today’s GOP

  1. blue8ass February 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Hal, very well written. You neglected to mention also that Reagan’s theory of trickle-down economics led to an explosion of homelessness from which we still haven’t fully recovered, and he was at best apathetic toward AIDS research and treatment.

    I’m curious about your premise. If I understand your essential point, you are saying that Reagan raised taxes (after lowering, causing a deficit of considerable size, which is one time of several when it should have been shown that this economic theory does not work, yet conservatives persist) and tremendously increased the national debt, both of which are true. But you’re saying that this is different from today’s conservative? How? Just on the taxes on the rich thing? Reagan started the slide toward the alliance of Christian and Conservative, an undesirable aspect of today’s Republican party. Reagan believed all wealth should be concentrated at the top and everyone else should beg for change — so do today’s conservatives. He was also completely devoid of any sense of the consequences of that, and so are today’s conservatives. How appropriate to that today, President Obama spoke on just that subject to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

    I know, I should get an award for smoothest segue.

    • HalFrontandCenter February 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      My premise was to point out the policy decisions that Reagan made that ran contrary to today’s GOP mindset. Reagan signed an amnesty bill. Reagan signed into law a number of tax increases. And Reagan increased the debt. Now, on the debt issue, the GOP in power over the last number of years spent and spent. But the movement right now on the right is to go away from that and start cutting spending, even if it means cutting defense spending.
      I’ll leave the harsher criticisms to you for now, but i will say that there is an interesting picture that emerged after Reagan’s tax rate cuts: the debt rose because Reagan and Congress continued to spend and spend. On the other hand, the higher income earners who got the biggest tax rate cut (and who also lost some of their favorite tax shelters during that time) put their money into the market, and there was a large period of economic growth. Just shows that all indicators can show that the overall economy is growing, even when individuals or groups of individuals are not doing well.

      • blue8ass February 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm

        Those who see growth during that period view it through rose-colored glasses with diamond-studded blinders on the sides.

        What there was was the most sweeping elimination of the middle class in my lifetime. It reminds me of when Moses parted the Red Sea, except instead of allowing his people to cross the sea bed, Reagan waited until some percentage got to dry land and let the rest of his people get washed away. For the Romans, he gave them a boat so they could cross safely (the Contras, Russia). Some moved up, others moved down, in some cases, just as they’d been starting to gain some upward mobility for the first time, and those who were already down…were forgotten. I remember those years vividly. I was in my teens.

        • HalFrontandCenter February 8, 2011 at 11:09 am

          There are numbers, statistics, ect. that show that the economy grew. In the realm of statistics, when it comes to numbers, either they show something or they don’t. Can’t really say that numbers wear rose colored glasses. Having said that, it is possible that while the overall economy grew, not everyone benefitted.

  2. Pingback: Another Person Who Agrees With Me–Reagan Would Be Persona Non Grata in Today’s GOP « Front and Center

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