As most of the leading lights of the fractured Republican Party gather in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), organizer Al Cardenas is looking backwards for guidance in taking the GOP forward. Reflecting on Ronald Reagan's 1975 post-Watergate address to the conclave, Cardenas recalled the Gipper's lessons that "conservatives will never compromise their principles because that's the surest way to lose" and "you can't just be a conservative, you've got to be a good candidate."
Of course, Cardenas's mantras seem more than a little ironic in 2013. After all, the American Conservative Union chief refused Chris Christie, the most popular Republican in the nation, a speaking slot until he "earns his wings." And as it turns out, despite having addressed the gathering a dozen times in the 1970's and 1980's, today that ever-compromising, Republican in Name Only Ronald Reagan would never be let through the door of CPAC 2013.
Here are 10 reasons 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
(Click a link to jump to the details for each which follow below the fold)
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-setting 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."
Sarah Palin's revisionist history
Friday notwithstanding, it was Reagan who put the United States on "the road to ruin."
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 there."
3. Reagan Expanded the Size of Government
On Friday, 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 seven 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 10 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 creditsas "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 2010 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.
8. Reagan Approved Protectionist Trade Barriers
Ronald Reagan believed in free markets and free trade. Except when he didn't.
In 2004, Alan Tonelson praised what he called Reagan's "trade realism":
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
that 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.
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.
Five years later, future Arkansas Governor and current GOP White House frontrunner Mike Huckabee
still hadn't gotten the message. As a Senate candidate in 1992, he called homosexuality "an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk." Huckabee then called for draconian—and discriminatory—action:
"If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague.
It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents."
Fourteen years later, 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.
(An earlier version of this piece first appeared as "Meet RINO Reagan" in February 2011. For more debunking of the right-wing mythology surrounding Ronald Reagan, see these 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.)