Friday, February 01, 2008

Now, about that Reagan “revolution”…

Republican candidates for almost anything seem to fall all over themselves declaring their faith to the gospel of Saint Ronald. This is especially true of the current field of Presidential candidates for the Republican nomination.

Perception may be reality but were the two terms of this professional actor really a revolution?

Here are Michael Kinsley’s thoughts in today’s L.A. Times:
In the GOP debate at the Reagan Library on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain repeated his story about how he and other prisoners of war used to discuss this exciting new governor of California, using tap codes through the walls of a North Vietnamese prison. Like many of the great man's own treasured anecdotes, it might be true. Unlike Reagan, McCain is a genuine war hero, so if he has over-polished this story a bit (it is almost word for word each time), he is honoring the great man by imitation if nothing else. In the debate, McCain repeatedly called himself a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution." He declared that Republicans have "betrayed Ronald Reagan's principles about tax cuts and restraint of spending."

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, kept repeating, inanely, "We're in the house that Reagan built." Reagan "would say lower taxes"; "Reagan would say lower spending"; Reagan "would say no way" to amnesty for illegal immigrants; Reagan would never "walk out of Iraq." ...

A problem: Reagan actually signed the law that authorized the last amnesty, back in 1986. Romney deals with this small difficulty by declaring: "Reagan saw it. It didn't work." He offers no evidence that Reagan had a change of heart about amnesty, and learning from experience was not something Reagan was known for. The proper cliche is McCain's: "Ronald Reagan came with an unshakable set of principles." ...

Would Reagan "walk out of" Iraq? Far from clear. He scurried out of Lebanon in 1984 after things got hot there. During the Reagan years, the United States was pro-Iraq in its war against Iran, although we also sold weapons to Iran to raise money for a terrorist war we were secretly financing in Nicaragua, while denouncing terrorism. It's hard to find any "unshakable set of principles" in this mess.

McCain declared in Wednesday's debate that he would appoint Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Samuel Alito -- that is, reliable conservatives. Romney characteristically upped the ante: "I would approve justices ... like Roberts and Alito, Scalia and Thomas." Roberts and Alito were appointed by George W. Bush, and Clarence Thomas was appointed by his father. Reagan did appoint Antonin Scalia, but he also appointed Sandra Day O'Connor, an unbending pragmatist who postponed the conservative revolution in constitutional law for a generation.

But the biggest fairy tale about Reagan is the most central one: about taxes and spending….

When Reagan took office in 1981, federal receipts (taxes) were $517 billion and outlays (spending) were $591 billion, for a deficit of $74 billion. When he left office in 1989, taxes were $999 billion and spending was $1.14 trillion, for a deficit of $141 billion. As a share of the economy, Reagan did cut taxes, from 19.6% to 18.4%, and he cut spending from 22.2% to 21.2%, increasing the deficit from 2.6% to 2.8%. The deficit went as high as an incredible 5% of GDP during his term. As a result, the national debt soared by almost two-thirds. You can fiddle with these numbers -- assuming it takes a year or two for a president's policies to take effect, or taking defense costs out -- and the basic result is the same or worse. Whatever, these numbers hardly constitute a "revolution."

McCain's stagy self-flagellation, on behalf of all Republicans, for betraying the Reagan revolution when they controlled Congress and the White House is entirely misplaced. George W. Bush and the GOP Congress did precisely what Reagan did: They cut taxes, mainly on the well-to-do, but they barely touched spending.

If the GOP is looking around for an icon to worship, it might consider Bill Clinton. He cut spending from 21.4% of GDP to 18.5% -- three times as much as Reagan. True, he raised taxes from 17.6% to 19.8%, but that's still a smaller chunk than when Reagan left office. And he left us with an annual surplus that threatened to eliminate the national debt. What's more, I think he's available.
You can read the entire piece here.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

A very unique perspective that hasn't gotten much play even in the blogosphere, for sure.

It's not the Bill Clinton, circa 1992, I dislike. It's the angry Bill Clinton, circa 2008, running 2 for 1 with Hillary that I do.

The Reagan legacy rests mostly upon the beginning of the term and its improvement upon the destructive policies of Carter. The myth, and it is a powerful myth, is that his leadership built the country back, strengthened our standing in the world, and made American feel proud to be Americans again.

Obama, to his credit, has tried to echo the same in his own speech, but with a different take.