Newt Gingrich claims to be the one true heir of Ronald Reagan because he knows that the Great Communicator is the gold standard of conservatism for many Republicans.
However, our understanding of what Reagan actually did as president is faulty on some key points. The usual assumption is that he implemented most of what the Republican Party now stands for: social conservatism, strong defense, supply-side economics, smaller government, lower taxes and a balanced budget.
What did Reagan actually do on these issues? Let's see what his record tells us.
Social conservatism? Yes. Early in his tenure as governor of California, Reagan signed a bill authorizing therapeutic abortions. However, he later labeled that a mistake and was generally pro-life for the rest of his career. Gay marriage was not a big issue in his time, so he has little track record there. Although Reagan is the only divorced president in U.S. history, he had a stable marriage as governor and president.
Strong defense? Yes, but Reagan talked with the Soviets and agreed to arms reduction. He massively increased military spending, including research and development for "star wars." However, he distrusted nuclear weapons, signed a significant nuclear arms reduction treaty with the USSR and laid the groundwork for the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START-1).
Supply-side economics? Yes and no. Reagan is famous for preaching that helping the wealthy would help the rest of us. He reduced the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, which sounds like present GOP policy. However, he also signed a bipartisan tax reform bill in 1986 that closed many loopholes for the wealthy, and at the end of his administration, he boosted capital gains taxes to the same level as regular income taxes: 28 percent. That's almost double the present amount that Mitt Romney and Warren Buffet pay on capital gains.
Smaller government? No. Less butter, more guns and not much deregulation. He did drastically cut many non-defense social programs. However, his massive increases for defense spending and a draconian turn in the war on drugs more than equaled those other cuts raising his government spending from 20.6 percent of GDP to 22.4 percent.
Lower taxes? No. This is the biggest surprise. Reagan did champion lower taxes and began his presidency by cutting taxes across the board. But then from 1981-87, he raised taxes 11 times in eight years. In 1984, as the economy recovered, he signed the largest peacetime tax increase in American history to reduce the deficit, which fits nicely with Keynsian theory but badly with Grover Norquist. Tax revenues as a fraction of GDP grew steadily during Reagan's tenure. Unsurprisingly, Reagan's budget director David Stockman is highly critical of the present GOP "anti-tax jihad … that benefits the prosperous classes."
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Balanced budget? No, just the opposite. Reagan reversed 32 years of steady debt reduction after WWII, tripling its dollar amount and running the national debt from 30 percent of GDP to over 50 percent. Libertarians denounce his deficits, and Reagan himself labeled them the "biggest disappointment" of his presidency.
So how did Ronald Reagan do? If Newt Gingrich were objective, he would have to admit that Reagan was a pragmatic moderate. But "moderate" is the dirty name that Gingrich keeps calling Romney in order to frighten GOP voters away from Romney.
Don't you just love the silly season of shallow slogans, deceptive sound bites and glandular politics?
Don Jarvis is a community volunteer and a retired BYU Russian professor.