By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
During the Republican National Convention, I heard speakers reverently intone, “Ronald Reagan” to sanctify slashing taxes, shrinking government, and savaging financial industry regulation.
Last week, Democratic National Convention speakers cited harmful trends that began thirty years ago. But the few times they named the man who was president then, they did so in positive terms.
The non-fictionalized historical record is clear: Ronald Reagan was a mediocre president whose policies set in motion disastrous trends. Yet people who call themselves conservatives now believe that he should be on Mount Rushmore, and Barack Obama attempts to co-opt rather than challenge revisionist history.
The heroic reputations of those on Mount Rushmore emerged organically, through historical perspective. The Reagan myth comes to us through a calculated campaign conducted by ideologues.
In 1996 the conservative movement was dispirited, factionalized, and without a unifying hero. Public opinion regarding Reagan was low.
In a survey by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., 32 historians scored Reagan’s presidency as “average-low.” And Rating the Presidents, a survey of 719 historians, put Reagan at 26 out of 42, behind Clinton and Bush 41.
That spring, right-wing ideologue Grover Norquist began the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project and tapped illegal immigrant Michael Kamburowski to head it. Kamburowski baldly told the Hartford Courant, “The left has been far better at rewriting history. Conservatives just haven’t paid that much attention to this kind of thing.”
The elements of the Reagan rewrite were that he
• Shrank government;
• Massively cut taxes, thereby bringing economic prosperity;
• Ended the cold war;
• Was uncompromising; and
• Was beloved by the people.
The initial plan involved a series of efforts to put Reagan’s name on National Airport, war ships, government buildings, schools, streets, and the ten-dollar bill, and use these campaigns to broadcast revisionist history. Times were right to contrast a Clinton presidency, mired in tawdry sexual misconduct and perjury, with a past president whose Alzheimer’s diagnosis evoked widespread sympathy and who was perceived as morally circumspect.
Rush Limbaugh, his imitators, and former Reagan aide Roger Ailes’ Fox News avidly broadcast the myth. George W. Bush, who presented himself to the GOP faithful as the next Ronald Reagan, worked to energize it throughout his campaign and presidency.
Over time, people forgot history, the media didn’t remind them, and voters increasingly came of age who had little memory of the Reagan years. But the historical facts remain unchanged.
Size of Government
The line that Reagan disciples most often repeat is from his first inaugural. “”In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
During his tenure, federal spending increased by 2.5% per year, adjusted for inflation. Federal government employment grew from 2.8 million to 3 million. (Bill Clinton subsequently trimmed it back to 2.7 million.) Although Reagan had pledged to eliminate two cabinet agencies, he added one instead.
During his first year in office, he pushed through an income tax bill that cut the top marginal rate from 70% to 28%. Every year thereafter, he increased taxes—11 times. He raised the gas tax and levied the largest corporate tax increase in history.
To keep Social Security solvent, he increased payroll taxes in 1993. The net effect left working Americans paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes, and wealthy Americans paying a lower one.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth during Reagan’s eight years (31.7%) was less than the Kennedy/Johnson years (47.1%) or the Clinton years (33.1%). Tax-cut demagogues like to point to the 16 million net new jobs created during his term. But this was the worst job growth of any administration between World War II and the George W. Bush administration. And a substantial portion of it came as a result of the economic stimulus provided by massive deficit spending.
In 1981, the national debt was $700 billion. After Reagan’s eight years, it was almost $3 trillion.
National debt as a percentage of GDP had declined under every presidential administration since World War II, except for a tiny 0.2% increase during the Nixon/Ford years. As a percentage of GDP, it rose by over 20% under Reagan.
When he took office the U.S. was the world’s largest creditor nation, with net receivables of $141 billion. When he left, we were the world’s largest debtor nation, owing a net of $533 billion.
By the late 1980s, middle-class incomes were barely higher than they had been before Reagan, and families living in poverty increased by a third. But during his term, income growth of the wealthiest 1% was ten times that of everyone else—61.5% vs. 6.15%.
The Soviet Union’s collapse was already underway when Reagan took office. Soviet grain production stagnated between 1966 and 1990. New Soviet oil and gas production was insufficient to provide the hard currency needed to buy grain abroad. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of openness and restructuring coincided with plummeting world oil prices, and the hardliners were too weak to suppress revolt.
Force-feeding the Pentagon more money than it wanted or could cost-effectively use only strengthened Soviet hardliners and delayed Gorbachev’s policies. It had much more impact on U.S. fiscal health than on U.S.S.R. survival.
Americans once understood this. A USA Today poll taken four days after the fall of the Berlin Wall found that 43% of Americans credited Gorbachev, while only 14% cited Reagan.
The ideologues like to forget that the proxy war that he fought with the USSR in Afghanistan cynically armed, trained, equipped, funded, and provided intelligence to the Islamic fundamentalists who became the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And that when his indecisive intervention in Lebanon got 241 Marines killed, he distracted the public by invading a tiny Caribbean island that posed no threat to us. And that he violated the law by secretly selling weapons to Iran and using the profits to finance drug-dealing “anti-communist” terrorists in Central America, whom he equated to our founding fathers.
After that last fiasco, a third of Americans thought Reagan should resign. But the myth is that he was beloved. In fact, his average approval rating while in office was 52.8%, behind Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and George H.W. Bush.
By the summer of 1992, just 24 percent of Americans said their country was better off because of the Reagan years, while 40 percent said it was worse off. One small reason for this disenchantment was that Reagan-era deregulation led directly to the savings and loan industry crisis and bailout, costing taxpayers $124 billion.
Listening to the RNC, you would never guess that Reagan inevitably favored compromise over gridlock. Or that he signed into law a bill that made 3 million illegal immigrants eligible for amnesty. Or that while exploiting and legitimating the religious right, he was not of it, having signed a California bill that legalized abortion.
The mythic Ronald Reagan exists to bully moderate Republicans, unite the base, and con the ignorant. The factual Ronald Reagan was neither an evil villain nor a secular saint. He was a charismatic leader with serious limitations and rigid beliefs.
Historians who have extensively interviewed his presidential staff tell us that those beliefs were often impervious to evidence. His handlers lacked confidence in his judgment and capacities. He had difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Incapable of analytical thought, he understood things through moralistic parables. The better the story’s plot, the stronger its heroes and villains, and the more often he repeated it, the more he dismissed contradictory evidence.
Some attribute these characteristics to Alzheimer’s disease. I think they were more likely the product of a small-town guy whose consciousness was shaped by Hollywood, where plots can be scripted to fit one’s beliefs, and happy endings can be decreed.
Too many Americans now share these characteristics. After 16 years of myth making, almost two-thirds approve of Reagan’s job performance.
The myth may somehow comfort them. But we continue to live with the dire consequences that come from confusing ideological fairy tales with verifiable fact.