Respond to this Article January/February 2003

Reagan's Liberal Legacy

What the new literature on the Gipper won't tell you.

By Joshua Green

Over the past several months, Nancy Reagan has quietly been alerting friends and family that the health of her husband Ronald Reagan, the nation's 40th president, is failing rapidly due to Alzheimer's. Reagan will turn 92 on Feb. 6, and the signs seem to suggest that he won't be with us for very much longer.

It is not uncommon, when such circumstances involve a national figure, for the media to prepare tributes and obituaries in anticipation of the event. But in the case of Ronald Reagan, the magnitude of this ritual seems certain to eclipse anything that has preceded it. As long as five years ago, the three main newsweeklies had locked up eminent presidential historians to write his valedictories. The conservative Heritage Foundation has underwritten a multimedia Reagan legacy project, cued up and awaiting word of his death. The major networks and the History Channel have prepared exhaustive documentaries (the latter didn't even wait for Reagan's departure, airing "Ronald Reagan: A Legacy Remembered" over Thanksgiving). And media jockeying to pay tribute has already begun: This month's Esquire dubs Reagan the "greatest living American."

But the clearest indicator can be found at the bookstore. The last few months have brought an avalanche of Reagan biographies, from John Harmer's Reagan: Man of Principle to Peter Schweizer's Reagan's War to Peter Wallison's Ronald Reagan: The Power of Conviction and the Success of His Presidency. They join such recent fare as William F. Buckley Jr.'s Ronald Reagan: An American Hero, Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King, and Dinesh D'Souza's Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, themselves just a fraction of the 427 listings on Amazon.com, many of them gauzy tributes, each striving to bestow an encomium more noble and gallant than the last. Indeed, what is so striking about these books--besides their sheer number--is their collective determination to exalt Reagan as the heroic embodiment of American conservatism.

This is no accident. In fact, there is an active campaign to nail into place a canonical version of Reagan's life and career. Energetic conservatives have organized a drive to glorify the former president by trying to do everything from affixing his name to public buildings in each of the nation's 3,066 counties to substituting his face for Alexander Hamilton's on the $10 bill. A similar dynamic applies here. Many of these hagiographies are written by noted conservative authors (Buckley, Noonan, D'Souza) or former Reagan staffers (Wallison, Martin Anderson, Michael Deaver), under the auspices of conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Wallison), the Hoover Institution (Anderson and Schweizer), and the Heritage Foundation (Stephen F. Hayward's The Age of Reagan, the first of two volumes).

One would have to go back to FDR to find a comparable example of a president portrayed in such consistently glowing terms--and the swashbuckling triumphs depicted in these books mythologize Reagan to a degree which exceeds even that. As one might expect, most gloss over or completely avoid mentioning the many embarrassing and outright alarming aspects of his presidency: from consulting astrologers to his fixation with biblical doom to the tortured rationalizations that enabled him to believe that he never traded arms for hostages. But they also do something else. Most of his conservative biographers espouse a Manichaean worldview in which Reagan's constancy in the face of liberal evils is the key to his greatness. But to sustain such an argument requires more than simply touting (and often exaggerating) his achievements, considerable though some of them were. The effort to gild Reagan's legacy also seems to demand that any accomplishment that didn't explicitly advance conservative goals be ex-punged from his record. And so they have been.

Reagan is, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history and will certainly be remembered as such. His record on the environment, defense, and economic policy is very much in line with its portrayal. But he entered office as an ideologue who promised a conservative revolution, vowing to slash the size of government, radically scale back entitlements, and deploy the powers of the presidency in pursuit of socially and culturally conservative goals. That he essentially failed in this mission hasn't stopped partisan biographers from pretending otherwise. (Noonan writes of his 1980 campaign pledges: "Done, done, done, done, done, done, and done. Every bit of it.")

A sober review of Reagan's presidency doesn't yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983. And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised.

All of this has been airbrushed from the new literature of Reagan. But as any balanced account must make clear, Reagan acceded to political compromises as all presidents do once in office--and on many occasions did so willingly. In fact, however often unintentionally, many of his actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives. What this clamor of adulation is seeking to deny is that beyond his conservative legacy, Ronald Reagan has bequeathed a liberal one.

Roosevelt Republican

Reagan arrived in Washington with a full head of steam, vowing, as he put it in the major economic speech of his 1980 campaign, "to move boldly, decisively, and quickly to control the runaway growth of federal spending." To conservatives, and many others, he seemed destined to fulfill campaign pledges to abolish entire government agencies, rein in the excesses of the welfare state, and end Americans' overreliance on government. Sensing the historical moment, Reagan echoed John F. Kennedy in famously declaring, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

At the outset of his first term, Reagan's revolution appeared to have unstoppable momentum. His administration passed an historic tax cut based on dramatic cuts in marginal tax rates and began a massive defense buildup. To help compensate for the tax cut, his first budget called for slashing $41.4 billion from 83 federal programs, only the first round in a planned series of cuts. And Reagan himself made known his desire to eliminate the departments of Energy and Education, and to scale back what his first budget director David Stockman called the "closet socialism" of Social Security and Medicaid.

But after his initial victories on tax cuts and defense, the revolution effectively stalled. Deficits started to balloon, the recession soon deepened, his party lost ground in the 1982 midterms, and thereafter Reagan never seriously tried to enact the radical domestic agenda he'd campaigned on. Rather than abolish the departments of Energy and Education, as he had promised to do if elected president, Reagan added a new cabinet-level department--one of the largest federal agencies--the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Though his budgets requested some cuts in some areas of discretionary spending, Reagan rapidly retreated and never seriously pushed them. As Lou Cannon, the Washington Post reporter who covered Reagan's political career for 25 years, put it in his masterful biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, "For all the fervor they created, the first-term Reagan budgets were mild manifestos devoid of revolutionary purpose. They did not seek to 'rebuild the foundation of our society' (the task Reagan set for himself and Congress in a nationally televised speech of February 5, 1981) or even to accomplish the 'sharp reduction in the spending growth trend' called for in [his] Economic Recovery Plan." By Reagan's second term, the idea of seriously diminishing the budget was, to quote Stockman, "an institutionalized fantasy." Though in speeches Reagan continued to repeat his bold pledge to "get government out of the way of the people," government stayed pretty much where it was.

This hasn't stopped recent contemporary conservative biographers from claiming otherwise. "He said he would cut the budget, and he did," declares Peggy Noonan in When Character Was King. In fact, the budget grew significantly under Reagan. All he managed to do was moderately slow its rate of growth. What's more, the number of workers on the federal payroll rose by 61,000 under Reagan. (By comparison, under Clinton, the number fell by 373,000.)

Reagan also vastly expanded one of the largest federal domestic programs, Social Security. Before becoming president, he had often openly mused, much to the alarm of his politically sensitive staff, about restructuring Social Security to allow individuals to opt out of the system--an antecedent of today's privatization plans. At the start of his administration, with Social Security teetering on the brink of insolvency, Reagan attempted to push through immediate draconian cuts to the program. But the Senate unanimously rebuked his plan, and the GOP lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterm elections, largely as a result of this overreach.

The following year, Reagan made one of the greatest ideological about-faces in the history of the presidency, agreeing to a $165 billion bailout of Social Security. In almost every way, the bailout flew in the face of conservative ideology. It dramatically increased payroll taxes on employees and employers, brought a whole new class of recipients--new federal workers--into the system, and, for the first time, taxed Social Security benefits, and did so in the most liberal way: only those of upper-income recipients. (As an added affront to conservatives, the tax wasn't indexed to inflation, meaning that more and more people have gradually had to pay it over time.)

By expanding rather than scaling back entitlements, Reagan--and Newt Gingrich after him--demonstrated that conservatives could not and would not launch a frontal assault on Social Security, effectively conceding that these cherished New Deal programs were central features of the American polity.

"Mondale Would Have Been Proud"

It's conservative lore that Reagan the icon cut taxes, while George H.W. Bush the renegade raised them. As Stockman recalls, "No one was authorized to talk about tax increases on Ronald Reagan's watch, no matter what kind of tax, no matter how justified it was." Yet raising taxes is exactly what Reagan did. He did not always instigate those hikes or agree to them willingly--but he signed off on them. One year after his massive tax cut, Reagan agreed to a tax increase to reduce the deficit that restored fully one-third of the previous year's reduction. (In a bizarre bit of self-deception, Reagan, who never came to terms with this episode of ideological apostasy, persuaded himself that the three-year, $100 billion tax hike--the largest since World War II--was actually "tax reform" that closed loopholes in his earlier cut and therefore didn't count as raising taxes.)

Faced with looming deficits, Reagan raised taxes again in 1983 with a gasoline tax and once more in 1984, this time by $50 billion over three years, mainly through closing tax loopholes for business. Despite the fact that such increases were anathema to conservatives--and probably cost Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, reelection--Reagan raised taxes a grand total of four times just between 1982-84.

This record flummoxes the best efforts of today's Reagan hagiographers to explain away. Peter Wallison, for instance, after proclaiming that Reagan "stayed the course against changes in his economic plan," later dismisses the president's tax increases as "a modest rollback" that "seems to have been the result" of his accepting a Democratic promise to cut spending by twice that amount. (Whatever happened to "Trust, but verify"?)

Reagan continued these "modest rollbacks" in his second term. The historic Tax Reform Act of 1986, though it achieved the supply side goal of lowering individual income tax rates, was a startlingly progressive reform. The plan imposed the largest corporate tax increase in history--an act utterly unimaginable for any conservative to support today. Just two years after declaring, "there is no justification" for taxing corporate income, Reagan raised corporate taxes by $120 billion over five years and closed corporate tax loopholes worth about $300 billion over that same period. In addition to broadening the tax base, the plan increased standard deductions and personal exemptions to the point that no family with an income below the poverty line would have to pay federal income tax. Even at the time, conservatives within Reagan's administration were aghast. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray, whose book Showdown at Gucci Gulch chronicles the 1986 measure, "the conservative president's support for an effort once considered the bastion of liberals carried tremendous symbolic significance." When Reagan's conservative acting chief economic adviser, William Niskanen, was apprised of the plan he replied, "Walter Mondale would have been proud."

So would Russell Long. In 1975, the Democratic senator from Louisiana had passed into law the earned income tax credit (EITC), essentially a wage subsidy for the working poor. Long's measure was tiny to begin with and had dwindled to insignificance by the time Reagan agreed to expand it in 1986 as part of the tax reform act. Despite years of opposing social insurance programs, Reagan's support of the EITC gave rise to what has become one of the most effective antipoverty measures the federal government has ever devised--by the late 1990s, the EITC was lifting 4.3 million people out of poverty every year. Reagan's decision to expand it was "the most important anti-poverty measure enacted over the past decade," wrote The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt. The exemption of millions of low-wage earners from income taxes through the EITC and other reforms in 1986 added a significant measure of progressivity to the tax code. As evidence of its popularity with liberals, Clinton dramatically expanded the EITC in 1993.

At the time, many Republicans touted Reagan's support as proof that he wasn't the coldhearted tyrant liberals made him out to be. Other conservatives, like Niskanen, however, saw it as troubling evidence of their leader's weakness. Today, there is a growing movement within the Bush administration to roll back these changes by making the working poor pay their "fair share" of taxes.

These evident lapses in conservative ideology are a fact that some liberals have a much less difficult time coming to terms with than conservatives. "There were two Reagans," says Robert J. McIntyre, director of the left-leaning Citizens for Tax Justice, who was instrumental in the 1986 act, "the good one and the bad one. Liberals and conservatives wouldn't agree on which is which, but they would have to agree that Reagan completely flipped after 1981. If you like one, you can't like the other."

Bellicose Peacenik

Reagan has a good claim to the credit he receives for a foreign policy of confronting and challenging the Soviet Union that helped bring on its collapse--a central theme of any account of his life. But the vexing problem for conservatives, then and now, was that Reagan's bellicosity, which they liked, obscured an equally strong belief that nuclear weapons could and should be abolished, a conviction found mainly on the liberal left. Long before he became president, Reagan had argued for a massive military buildup not just to confront the Soviets, which hardliners approved, but also to put the United States in a stronger position from which to establish effective arms control--a goal to which conservative pragmatists subscribed. But no one shared, or even understood until late in the game, Reagan's desire for total disarmament. "My dream," he later wrote in his memoirs, "became a world free of nuclear weapons." This vision stemmed from the president's belief that the biblical account of Armageddon prophesied nuclear war--and that apocalypse could be averted if everyone, especially the Soviets, eliminated nuclear weapons.

Driven by this dream, Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev and initiated a series of negotiations that ultimately alarmed everyone in his administration. Hardliners like Patrick Buchanan, Richard Perle, and Caspar Weinberger reacted in horror to the very idea of engaging the Soviets in such talks, warning against the "grand illusion" of peace. "Reagan is a weakened president, weakened in spirit as well as clout," echoed New Right leader Paul Weyrich in The Washington Post. Administration pragmatists like George Shultz and Robert McFarlane, who supported negotiations but believed in deterrence, were shocked by how far Reagan took them. At the Reykjavik summit, he and Gorbachev almost agreed to the "zero option" to eliminate both sides' thermonuclear arms. Reagan's unwillingness to give up his cherished missile-defense program doomed the agreement, though the talks did yield the signature arms-reduction pact of his presidency, the 1987 INF treaty.

Conservative biographers like Peter Schweizer seem determined not to acknowledge Reagan's timely softening toward the Soviets: Reagan "would not change course, even in pursuit of personal political glory." But, thankfully, Reagan did change course. After a defense buildup that pushed the Soviets to the verge of economic collapse, this shift, augmented by a reduction in U.S. military spending in the latter years of his presidency, strengthened Gorbachev's ability to proceed with reform in the Soviet Union, and set the stage for George H.W. Bush to oversee a peaceful end to the Cold War.

Reagan was similarly helpful in advancing another great liberal cause, one in which his overall record is deeply tarnished: human rights. The idea of pressuring despotic governments to better treat their citizens had long appealed to the left and rankled the right. Like other conservatives, Reagan criticized the Helsinki Accords when Gerald Ford signed them in 1976, and disparaged Jimmy Carter during his 1980 campaign for what he considered a soft refusal to engage with the bitter realities of communism. Reagan's indifference to human rights abuses committed by the United States' erstwhile allies in Central America is an especially ugly stain on his presidency. Yet, as time progressed, there was one place where he did apply the logic of bringing human rights into public policy: the Soviet Union. Through the latter part of his presidency, Reagan spoke forcefully and openly about human rights in speeches and in meetings with Gorbachev, presenting lists of thousands of persecuted Soviet Jews and dissidents, many of whom were ultimately allowed to emigrate. "Human rights became for Reagan the final shame that he could bring to bear on that aspect of the Communist empire," says Sean Wilentz, director of the American Studies program at Princeton University.

Reagan's human rights policy may have been inconsistent and hypocritical. But the very fact that he had one transformed the politics of human rights. With dissidents from Andrei Sakarov to Vaclav Havel testifying to the power of his words in sustaining their movements, it became impossible for conservatives to deny the usefulness of such commitments as a component of American foreign policy. Today, there are almost as many human rights proponents on the right side of the aisle in Congress as on the left.

Mourning in America

Many of Reagan's actions that wound up furthering liberal ends were to some extent the result of the normal compromises of political office. The fact that his conservative biographers don't see fit to acknowledge these deviations is a clue that their aim is something besides an accurate depiction of the life and achievements of the 40th president. When conservatives mythologize the Reagan presidency as the golden era of conservatism, it's not Reagan that they're mythologizing, but conservatism.

The great success of Reagan's 1980 campaign was that it united the disparate strands of the conservative movement: supply-siders, libertarians, religious conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and big business. The fact that Reagan's presidency didn't accomplish anything approaching its seismic promise--the size of government grew, abortion remained legal, and entitlements still abounded--is one that his partisan biographers elide by focusing on what Reagan believed and said rather than on what he actually did. The imaginary Reagan who inhabits these books embodies the ideas on which all these groups can agree. His shining example helps maintain the coalition while putting pressure on current GOP politicians to hew to the hard-right ideal.

The real Reagan, on the other hand, would bring discord to the current conservative agenda. If you believe, as conservatives now do, that raising taxes is always wrong, then it's hard to admit that Reagan himself did so repeatedly. If you argue that the relative tax burden on low-income workers is too light, as the Bush administration does, then it does not pay to dwell on the fact that Reagan himself helped lighten that burden. If you insist, as many hardliners now do, that America is dangerously soft on communist China, then it is best to ignore Reagan's own softening toward the Soviet Union. As with other conservative media efforts--Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, The Washington Times--the purpose of the Reagan legacy project is not to deliver accuracy, but enhance political leverage.

But, as Reagan himself liked to cite from John Adams, facts are stubborn things. And the fact is that Reagan, whether out of wisdom or because he was forced, made significant compromises with the left. Had he not saved Social Security, relented on his tax cut, and negotiated with the Soviets, he'd have been a less popular, and lesser, president. An honest portrait of Reagan's presidency would not diminish his memory, but enlarge it.

Joshua Green is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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