By Eugene Robinson
As we mark the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth, one of our major political parties has become imbued with the Gipper’s political philosophy and governing style. I mean the Democrats, of course.
The Republican Party tries to claim the Reagan mantle but has moved so far to the right that it now inhabits its own parallel universe. On the planet that today’s GOP leaders call home, Reagan would qualify as one of those big-government, tax-and-spend liberals who are trying so hard to destroy the American way of life.
Some Republicans, I suppose, might be so enraptured by the Reagan legend that they are unaware of his actual record. I hate to break it to Sarah Palin, but Reagan raised taxes. Often. Sometimes by a lot.
When he took office as governor of California in 1967, the state faced a huge budget deficit. Reagan promptly raised taxes by $1 billion—at a time when the entire state budget amounted to just $6 billion. It was then the biggest state tax increase in history. During Reagan’s eight years in Sacramento, the top state income tax rate increased from 7 percent to 11 percent. Business and sales taxes also soared.
When Reagan moved into the White House, he brought with him a theory that critics derided as “voodoo economics”—the idea that the way to balance the budget was to lower taxes, not raise them. Reagan quickly pushed through the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, a tax cut of about $264 billion. Republicans seem to rank this event alongside Columbus’ discovery of the New World as one of the great milestones in human history.
What eludes the GOP’s selective memory is that Reagan subsequently raised taxes 11 times, beginning with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. All told, he took back roughly half of that hallowed 1981 tax cut. Why? Because he realized that the United States needed an effective federal government—and that to be effective, the government needed more money.
Republicans laud Reagan’s unshakable commitment to smaller government. Yet federal employment rolls grew under his watch; they shrank under Bill Clinton. Reagan had promised to eliminate the Departments of Energy and Education, but he didn’t. Instead, he signed legislation that added to the Cabinet a new Department of Veterans Affairs.
On social issues, Reagan advocated a federal ban on abortions, the legalization of organized prayer in the schools and an end to court-ordered busing to achieve racial balance. He accomplished none of this. In his personal life, by all accounts, Reagan was a live-and-let-live kind of guy. He did, after all, spend much of his adult life as a denizen of—cover your ears, Republicans—evil Hollywood.
None of this is to suggest that the patron saint of modern American conservatism was some sort of flaming liberal, just that he was a pragmatist who respected objective reality. In a big state or a big country, big government was a given. When taxes needed to be raised, the thing to do was raise them.
But even though Reagan knew that ideology had its limits, I don’t doubt that he truly believed the ideology he espoused. His biggest impact on domestic politics was that the center of gravity shifted to the right—enough, in fact, that what once were extreme views have become orthodox.
Democrats sound and act almost like Reaganites. It was Clinton, remember, who balanced the budget and ended welfare “as we know it.” President Obama has pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class, and Democrats couldn’t even manage to reverse tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that might make even Reagan blush. Obama based his health care package on Republican ideas—including the individual mandate, which had been proposed by conservative think tanks and implemented by Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party has lost its mind. The GOP argues for deep across-the-board budget cuts of a kind that Reagan ultimately rejected. Party leaders denounce the belief that government can do any good for anybody as “socialism.”
Here’s a quote that might have come from a Democrat during last fall’s tax-cut debate: “We don’t seek to aid the rich, but those lower- and middle-income families who are most strapped by taxes and the recession.” In fact, Ronald Reagan said those words in 1983, when he was arguing for tuition tax credits. Remind me, who are the Gipper’s true heirs?
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group