Friday, November 4, 2011

The Myth of Saint Ronald

If it is true that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan at, of all places, a national airport surely falls in the latter category. The irony of creating a paean to a man who destroyed the nation's air traffic controller's union at an airport would be rich were the airport itself not renamed for him already.  The right has created a highly successful messaging movement (it's what they do best) to ensure Ronald Wilson Reagan's legacy as a tax cutting, bureaucracy hating, Commie defeating cowboy hero who single handedly revived our economy, restored Americans' pride and beat the Russians.  Indeed, there is a project afoot to ensure that Reagan is commemorated in every county throughout the country and intermittent trial balloons to further memorialize him on everything from the $10 bill to the side of Mount Rushmore.  

The hagiography of Reagan extended to the choreography of his funeral, a multi-day commemoration orchestrated with the same eye for the visual that made his advance team's work in the 1980s so forward thinking, the construction of his library (with the larger than life use of Air Force One as a backdrop) and the encomiums from Presidential candidates both declared and flirting, all of whom make the pilgrimage to the Reagan Library and pronounce their fealty to Dutch's memory.  Of course, in death as in life, the myth of Reagan was always more useful than the reality and a cowed "mainstream media" genuflects appropriately at his memory while rarely delving into our 40th President's actual record.   

While Reagan did campaign as a conservative and famously declared in his first inaugural address that "Government is not the solution to our problems, it is the problem," the reality of his eight years in office is far more moderate than the myth-makers would have you believe.  Indeed, Reagan's willingness to cut deals with Congressional Democrats that raised taxes, instituted taxation on Social Security and placed mandates on states in order to receive federal funding runs deeply afoul of prevailing Republican orthodoxy in 2011.  Moreover, he created a new federal cabinet agency and, when he left office, there were more federal employees than the day he put his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office.

Tax policy is probably the area most in need of historical revision.  While it is true that Reagan passed a large tax cut within weeks of assuming office, most partisans (and some journalists) choose to focus on that accomplishment and ignore the fact that the result of that tax cut, which was a large spike in the federal deficit, resulted in tax increases of one kind or another in every subsequent year of Reagan's Administration with the exception of his final year in office.  Reagan was an equal opportunity tax raiser.  Gas taxes were raised, Social Security was taxed for the first time in history, and even a third of the tax cuts instituted in 1981 were restored a year later.  Reagan raised the amount employees paid into FICA and closed business loopholes.  Until the Omnibus Budget Act of 1993 raised taxes on roughly the top 2 percent of income earners in the country, Reagan's 1982 tax increase was the largest peacetime increase in history.

Of course, all that tax raising would get Reagan branded a liberal these days, but his budget deficit politics were merely a precursor to the ruinous deficit policies followed by George W. Bush.  Former Vice President Cheney is often quoted as saying that "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter" and that may be true so far as it goes, but one need not look too deeply at the Reagan record to see that deficits seemed to matter to Reagan.  While the numbers do not look that substantial in today's dollars, and the difference in the FY82 budget deficit of $127.9 billion and the FY89 budget deficit of $152.6 billion does not seem that great, the trajectory of deficits was upward through the early part of Reagan's term of office, peaking at more than $212 billion in FY85 before slowly ebbing due to "pay as you go" legislation passed by Congress, additional tax increases in 1986, 1990 and 1993 and sustained economic growth in the 1990s that all helped get the budget into balance by FY99.

Those annual deficits also manifested themselves in a substantial accumulation of debt while Reagan was in office.  The debt ceiling was raised seventeen times in eight years, going from $985 billion in 1981 to $2.8 trillion in 1987.  While this may seem insignificant compared to today's numbers, that debt continued to accrue after Reagan left office, adding even more to our overall indebtedness.  When George Bush left office in 1993, he and Reagan had borrowed more money in 12 years than had been borrowed from 1776 until the day they assumed office in 1981.  Of course, no Tea Party rose up in opposition to this because deficits and debt only matter when Democrats are President.

Another totem of right wing mythology is the need to shrink government, but here too, Reagan's record is hardly conservative.  Federal expenditures as a percentage of overall Gross Domestic Product remained relatively constant from 1981 to 1989 - going from 22.2% to 21.2%; however, during the 1982-3 recession, that amount went up to 23.1% (1982) and 23.5% (1983) when what we now commonly refer to "stimulus spending" occurred to spur economic growth.  As for the sheer size of government, Reagan created the Department of Veterans Affairs and 61,000 more federal workers were on the payroll when he left office than when he was sworn in.  If one is looking for a President who actually substantially lowered federal employment, that would be Bill Clinton, who oversaw a reduction in the federal workforce of roughly 377,000 employees.

In Reagan's foreign policy, there is a similar disconnect between the myth and reality.  The right would have us believe that Reagan foreign policy was muscular and caused countries to shrink at the reassertion of American military strength.  Historians will long debate how much credit Reagan deserves for "ending" the Cold War, how much is due Soviet Premier Gorbachev, and whether the Soviet Union merely crumbled due to a sclerotic economy that failed to keep pace with our enormous military build-up.  One need only look at revolutionary change that has occurred in other totalitarian regimes in the Middle East to know that inevitably, they are consumed because they do not provide the basic rights their citizens’ demand.  While Reagan certainly deserves some credit, even here, the right misses important aspects of his foreign policy that they now revile.  For example, Reagan signed a treaty in 1987 that limited the deployment of Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons.  A year earlier, Gorbachev offered a proposal to eliminate *all* nuclear weapons but was rebuffed because of disagreements over the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense (the efficacy of which is still unproven nearly three decades later).  Today, attempts at modest arms reductions are no longer bi-partisan affairs.  When President Obama negotiated a weapons treaty with Russia, Republicans in the Senate voiced open opposition to it and the treaty passed with far fewer votes than prior agreements under Republican Presidents.

In many other aspects, Reagan pursued a foreign policy that toggled between ineffectual (no progress was made in negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians while Reagan was in office) and criminal (Iran-Contra).  Indeed, when Reagan's staff was not engaging in activity that would result in indictments and convictions, an Independent Counsel and controversial pardons by his successor, his Administration was paying off hostage takers and "cutting and running" from Lebanon in the wake of a suicide bombing at a U.S. Marine Corps barracks.  The Reagan Administration was also slow in imposing sanctions on the Apartheid-led government in South Africa, funded right-wing huntas in Central America and sent an emissary (some guy named Don Rumsfeld) to Iraq in 1986 to meet with Saddam Hussein. 

These major flaws in Reagan-era foreign policy are papered over in the re-telling of his time in office, but, taken together, represent enormous failures by our government.  Instead of critically examining these decisions, feel good actions like our "invasion" of Grenada to "rescue" some medical students who were studying there and the release of the American Embassy hostages on Reagan's first day in office, are perverted into examples of the re-assertion of American might, even though the Grenada invasion was laughable and the Iranians decision to release the hostages was not a sign of their fear of Reagan, but rather, a final jab to President Carter (the terms of the release, transfer of funds and other particulars had already been negotiated and agreed to).  Other incidents like the murder of American soldiers in Berlin by Libyan terrorists and the taking of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, went largely unavenged (with the former, a couple of missiles were sent into Libya, to little effect; as to the latter, the "muscle" hijackers were captured in the aftermath of the event but the mastermind of that attack escaped and was at large for another 19 years before he died).

Of course, the most infamous foreign policy blunder of the Reagan years was Iran Contra.  The granular details are well covered by people far more expert than me, but in short, our government sold weapons directly to the Iranians (which was forbidden by law) and took the proceeds to fund a group called the "Contras," a rebel force in Central America attempting to overthrow the Communist government in Nicaragua.  Multiple senior level officials, including the Secretary of State (Caspar Weinberger), two National Security Advisors (Robert "Bud" MacFarlane and John Poindexter) and about 7 other high-ranking officials were indicted and/or convicted of crimes associated with this misadventure.  The scandal was an enormous embarrassment to our government and exposed a rogue element operating out of the White House and in contravention of federal law. 

The waning days of Reagan's time in office not only exposed the Iran-Contra scandal but saw a massive crash in the stock market and a drift that was further exposed in May 1988 when former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan published a tell-all book that revealed First Lady Nancy Reagan's use of an astrologer to manage her husband's schedule. Reagan's role (if any) in Iran-Contra was never fully determined and while some convictions were overturned on technicalities on appeal, no true closure occurred as President George H.W. Bush issued pardons in the last month of his presidency, wiping the slate clean. 

In short, Reagan advanced policies that today would get him expelled from the Republican Party.  Raising taxes, expanding the scope of government and indebting the country in ways unseen at any point in our history do not form a comfortable narrative for people seeking to advance the myth of Reagan as a tax cutting, government shrinking hero.  Further, selling arms to a rogue state like Iran, pulling troops out of Lebanon in the wake of a suicide bombing and failing to gain retribution against Libyan terrorists who killed American servicemen in Berlin would all get Reagan labeled a heretic in today's GOP.  What modern-day Republicans have digested is a myth of Reagan that has endured - no Republican in Congress has voted for a tax increase since President George H.W. Bush's compromise deal with Democrats in 1990 and the supply-side mantra of lower taxes is rolled out when the economy is good (raising taxes would slow growth) and when the economy is bad (raising taxes will kill any recovery).

Reagan was by no means a liberal but he was also not an intransigent political leader unwilling to accept fiscal (or political) realities.  Part of Reagan's (and his advisors') genius was to create the mythology that he never saw a tax he did not want to cut or a Communist he could not stare down, and for the purposes of molding a legacy, those things are fine so far as they go.  But when it came to governing, and to making government work, more or less, for its citizens, Reagan was both a pragmatist and a realist.  He cut deals to raise taxes; he did not attempt to tamper with Social Security by privatizing it or turn Medicare recipients into unwilling clients of insurance companies. Unfortunately, the dogma internalized by Republicans is suffocating Congress’s ability to pass meaningful legislation to aid our economy.  What Republicans should be doing is going back and looking at the true Reagan record and realize that compromise is not a sin and blind allegiance to conservative orthodoxy is not something even their vaunted Saint Ronnie would do. 

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