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. (As California Rep. Duncan Hunter put it, "a more moderate/former liberal like Ronald Reagan...would never be elected today in my opinion.") 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."