Misremembering Reagan

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Mr. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.

For months Republican front-runner John McCain has attracted the ire of conservative activists who doubt his conservative credentials. Hard-line conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh claims to want a Democrat as president rather than the Arizona Republican. As Limbaugh puts it, "I would prefer not to have conservative Republicans in the Congress paralyzed by having to support, out of party loyalty, a Republican president who is not conservative."

Like-minded conservatives invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as someone who truly represented core conservative ideals. Almost twenty years after Reagan's presidency ended, he remains a beloved figure. According to conservative activists, lowering taxes, promoting free trade, defending the sanctity of life, and reining in government spending are Reagan's legacy, and they are his true heirs. But McCain, they charge, has betrayed the Reaganite faith by compromising these very ideals.

Yet these same conservatives remember Reagan's record selectively. Were they to look behind the rhetoric, they would discover that Reagan often embraced policies sharply at odds with conservative philosophy.

Almost all conservatives oppose abortion. But in 1967, only four months into his first term as governor of California, Reagan signed into law a bill that resulted in millions of abortions due to a provision in the bill allowing abortions for the well-being of the mother. Times have changed. Few of today's conservatives would support a politician who signed a similar bill. Among the ten major Republicans who have run for president this year, only Rudolph Giuliani supported abortion rights.

Today's conservatives proclaim their support for balanced budgets and decry deficit spending. However, the former president's economic policy, called "Reaganomics," produced huge federal budget deficits and increased the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion. The current crop of conservatives would surely denounce any president with this record.

During the current presidential campaign, all the Republican candidates pledged to make the tax cuts of George W. Bush permanent. But in 1982, Reagan signed into law two major tax increases that raised taxes by about $40 billion per year, making it the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history. In today's dollars, that would surpass $100 billion per year. Were a current presidential candidate even to admit to the possibility that he or she might raise taxes, conservatives would quickly pounce. Both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney were tarred by their rivals as tax raisers.

In 1983 Reagan approved legislation raising the Social Security tax rate, which included automatic increases in the taxable wage base. In 1984, Reagan signed the Deficit Reduction Act, which increased taxes by $18 billion a year or 0.4 percent of GDP. That represents about $44 billion in today's dollars. He also raised taxes in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Combined, these tax increases raised taxes by $164 billion as of 1992. Put another way, that amount equals about $300 billion in today's economy.

Conservatives also argue that the U.S. government must stop illegal immigration and reject amnesty for those who have already crossed the border. In 1986 Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants. This same bill also granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants who entered the country prior to January 1, 1982, and lived here continuously. Conservatives now denounce amnesty as rewarding lawbreakers. In response, John McCain has begun to backtrack on his support for immigration reform.

Today's conservatives would be well served to study what Reagan actually did in office. They could learn much from him. He understood when to press his advantage when he had the votes. He also knew how to concede when he didn't have the votes. In other words, he was a skilled politician willing to compromise his ideological principles in order to govern. In remembering Ronald Reagan, just as in deciding whom to vote for, conservatives ought to look at the whole man, not just the aspects that are politically convenient.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/15/2008


The relationship between a market economy and energy production is flawed because there is no ownership of the inevitable pollution and no simple way to create ownership. (I don't think there was much discussion of cap and trade in the Reagan era.)

In such a political environment, one way to encourage a reduction in pollution while maintaining a market based appoach was to use the tax code to encourage conservation and alternate energy sources.

Reagan opposed that successfully. We lost most tax code provisions; mileage requirements for vehicles began to stagnate, and in the absence of such provisions the market indeed worked wonders. We got the cheapest energy we could buy, gasoline, but it was cheap in part because there was no ownership of the pollution.

We also became extremely vulnerable to a new rise in oil prices--a rise that was inevitable--because we fell behind in energy efficient innovation. Why did we fall behind? The market: it was not a logical investment in a cheap oil nation.

Now, not for a minute would I say that Reagan was solely responsible. He had help on both sides of the aisle, and a complacent public made it difficult for his successors to do much better.

To sum up: what you say we should have done is pretty much what we did. Take a look at the results.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2008

Reagan won the Cold War when he insisted on SDI and walked out on Gorby at Reykjavik, against the advice of even his own State Department and other close associates (most of them). The money to maintain the Cold War arms race flowed out under all those other presidents, but ended followng Reagan as George H. W. Bush mopped up.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2008

Reagan deregulated oil, unlike Carter, bringing on enormous supplies at reasonable prices... It is the Greens who prevent America from being energy-independent, and the stupid idiots who mail them a check every year. Also the Hollywood reds and others who agitate against nuclear power.

John Richard Clark - 3/13/2008

Did anyone "win" the Cold War? If you think the US did, then Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and GHW Bush deserve as much credit as Reagan.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/13/2008

And his policy on energy, which was "don't worry, be happy" haunts the economy today.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/13/2008

You seem to have forgotten Ronald Reagan won the 45-year old Cold War with the Soviet Union, and liberated hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe, which also generated an enormous "peace dividend." His tax and fiscal policies stopped inflation cold and dropped the unemployment rate tremendously, launching an era of prosperity which has lasted 26 years so far, and still counting.