Say what you will about the former President, but the mythology surrounding him is so settled that they may as well be carving him into Rushmore now. Ask any Republican candidate for President who their role model / favorite President is, as someone recently did, and all will reply Ronald Reagan.
That’s because he did what Obama is just starting to do — he instinctively understood his role and knew how to use his rhetoric to call on the best of America and highlight the best in America. He was maddeningly disciplined…or maybe lacking the facts if you’re on the left like me — but whatever the case, he never let circumstances or the actual details stand in the way of a good story.
And the story, when it comes to Reagan’s actual record, is pretty stunning. While he is revered as one who talked about cutting government, cutting taxes and taking on entitlements (he spoke passionately about it in the 60s and 70s), his record make him seem more liberal than his rhetoric. Consider this:
- In 1981 and 1986 Reagan did call for and cut taxes significantly, creating brackets, exemptions and cutting rates. The effective top rate was lowered from 70% – 28%.
- Two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 represented the largest tax increases ever enacted in peacetime, according to tax historian Joseph Thorndike.
- In 1982 Reagan supported a five-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax and higher taxes on the trucking industry.
- 1983’s Social Security Reform legislation increased the payroll tax rate and required that higher income beneficiaries pay taxes on their benefits and required the self-employed to pay the full payroll tax rate, rather than the portion normally paid by employers.
- Because the reform bill eliminated many shelters and tax breaks for the wealthy (who never paid the 70% rate anyway), taxes on the rich actually went up.
- All things considered, the tax increases Reagan approved ended up canceling out the benefits of his 1981 tax reform legislation. According to the Treasury Department, the 1981 tax cut reduced revenues by $1.48 trillion by the end of fiscal 1989. But tax increases since 1982 equaled $1.5 trillion.
- Reagan vowed to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education. The Education budget doubled to $22.7 billion under his tenure.
- When it comes to the size of Government, annual spending averaged 22.4% of GDP under Reagan, which is above today’s 40-year average of 20.7%, and above the 20.8% average under Carter — mostly due to a surge in Defense spending. Reagan slammed Carter during the campaign about his spending and the size of government, yet he spent more than Carter, just on different things.
- Reagan talked in his campaign about shrinking the IRS, but by the end of his term the number of employees reached an all-time high.
- And on August 2, 1988, Reagan announced that he had changed his mind about a pro-union plant-closing bill.
Reagan literally invented the Rhetoric of the True Conservative that so many cling to today, but in reality he was something different — something more akin to a tough-talking, iconic, cliched but nonetheless Progressive Republican. Can you imagine what today’s conservatives would say about a pro-union, tax-raising, social-security-defending, grow-the-size-of-government politician?
We judge Reagan not solely by what he did, but by the ethos created by one of the greatest actors in generations. He talked a great game — one that still inspires many today.
— Jeff K