Slate: Reagan Wasn't Half as Conservative as He Seemed

Roundup: Talking About History

Timothy Noah, in Slate (June 7, 2004):

I've registered as a Republican exactly once in my life. The year was 1980, and Ronald Reagan, who died today at the age of 93, was seeking the GOP nomination for president. Teddy Kennedy was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination, and in Massachusetts, where I then lived, Kennedy was certain to win the primary. Better to cast my vote where it could do some good—in favor of John Anderson, who at that point was running as a Republican, and who seemed the only candidate capable of denying Reagan the nomination. Reagan was dangerous. He wanted to eliminate vast portions of the government indiscriminately, and he wanted to commit the military to ill-considered interventions abroad.

I couldn't have been more wrong. As an antigovernment crusader and as a warmonger, Reagan turned out to be all bark and no bite. In his first inaugural address, Reagan said:

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.

But that didn't happen. As Michael Kinsley has observed, after Reagan's two terms spending by the federal government was one quarter higher, factoring out inflation, than when he got there; the federal civilian workforce had increased from 2.8 million to 3 million; and federal spending, as a share of Gross Domestic Product, had decreased by one percentage point to 21.2 percent. "If Ronald Reagan and his 'Reaganauts' could only slow down the growth of government spending, not reverse it or eliminate wasteful programs, what hope is there for any other conservative president?," complained the conservative Heritage Foundation soon after Reagan left office. The only major government agency Reagan managed to eliminate was the Civil Aeronautics Board, which didn't have much to do after the Carter administration deregulated the airline industry. Fittingly, the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Ave., completed ten years after Reagan left office, today houses 5,000 government employees and is the largest government building in Washington.

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