Few Republican rituals are more hilariously fact-impaired than the rote paeans to Ronald Reagan. Any bets how many we’ll hear during tonight’s presidential debate?
On stage at the Reagan Library, with Reagan’s plane as their backdrop, the 11 candidates will duly bow and scrape and pledge unending fealty to his iconic conservative legacy – which is priceless, because if the actual Reagan were to run in today’s Republican primaries, he’d be trashed as wishy washy and driven from the race.
Perhaps a shrink could determine whether today’s Republican’s are willfully amnesiac or historically ignorant. But the bottom line is that the mythic Reagan they worship is a far cry from the actual Reagan who cut deals with the opposition, governed as a pragmatist, and told his chief of staff, “I’d rather get 80 percent of what I want than go over the cliff with my flags flying.”
Today’s Republicans, led at the moment by the likes of Donald Trump, want to kick undocumented immigrants out of the country. But Reagan – the governing Reagan, not the mythic Reagan – signed a 1986 reform law that mandated a path to citizenship for agricultural and seasonal workers. He also offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants who had lived here continuously for many years.
And Reagan said: “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight.” Imagine how that tolerant statement would play in the 2016 primaries. His rivals would savage it on Twitter and Trump would probably assail him as a stupid, stupid person.
Rest assured, Reagan’s actual record on immigration will go unmentioned. So will his actual record on abortion. Some of the candidates who will extol Reagan tonight are extremists who want to ban all abortions, even if the woman has been impregnated via rape or incest, and even if her health is endangered. But Reagan was no extremist. As governor of California – imagine how this would play in today’s primaries – he signed an abortion rights bill that took the procedure out of the back alleys and into the legal medical realm. And throughout his presidency, he paid only lip service to the antiabortion movement.
On foreign policy tonight, we’ll undoubtedly hear candidates talk tough about our enemies and assail the Iran nuclear deal – perhaps by citing Reagan as a role model, for his purported legacy of toughness abroad. But nobody will mention the Iran arms-for-hostages scandal, where the Reagan team sent weapons to our enemies in exchange for the release of American hostages. Nobody will mention Reagan’s ’83 decision to pull all our troops out of Lebanon after terrorist bombers killed 241 U.S. military personnel (a decision that Osama bin Laden later cited as proof of “the decline of American power and the weakness of the American soldier”). And nobody on stage tonight will mention the fact that Reagan frequently broke bread with our commie Soviet enemy to cut nuclear deals.
But most of all, we’re likely to hear more Republican rhetoric about the urgent need to cut taxes – combined with ritual praise for Reagan’s purported tax-cutting legacy. Oh, the chasm that separates delusional myth from factual reality.
Truth is, Reagan the governor signed the largest tax hike in California history, slapping increases on banks, corporations, and inheritances – hikes worth $7 billion in today’s money. And Reagan the president signed off on federal tax hikes in 1982, 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987. In fact, his ’82 package was later characterized in a Treasury Department report as the heftiest peacetime tax hike in American history.
Meanwhile, in 1983, breaking a campaign promise to target entitlement programs, Reagan saved Social Security with a $165- billion bailout by signing a hike in payroll taxes. That same year, he also hiked the federal gasoline tax. And in his second term, he signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which imposed the largest corporate tax hike in history ($120 billion over five years), and closed $300 billion in corporate loopholes. And in that same law, Reagan agreed to exempt millions of low-wage earners from paying any income tax at all. Sounds a lot like what today’s conservatives would call “socialism.”
Let’s see, what else….Oh yeah, Reagan agreed to raise the federal debt ceiling 18 times.
I can remember discussing Reagan’s record way back in 1998, with a Republican named Jack Pitney. He had worked during the ’80s Reagan era as a party aide on Capitol Hill, where he saw how the president actually governed. But unlike many of his brethren, he didn’t fall prey to the Reagan myth. Even though he called himself “a Reagan fan,” he told me: “It verges on blasphemy to say this, but talking about the real Reagan is like going to church and saying, ‘St. Peter wasn’t so hot.'”
Nevertheless, Republican candidates will try to channel Reagan tonight, to conjure his spirit, to further the myth. They’re light years away from who he actually was, but no matter. As somebody said in the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”