Ronald Reagan is the icon of the modern conservative movement. He is also the only American politician that I have ever been passionate about. To be sure, he was a very mixed bag from an Objectivist perspective. But he stood for certain definite principles, even though in practice he was far from consistent. On the positive side, he went to bat for the productive members of society, he extolled the individual and the private sector against the state, and his agenda of income tax rate cuts, modest regulatory restraint, and sound Federal Reserve monetary policy ignited a nearly two decade long economic expansion that blasted Keynesian economics into the dust bin of history, despite its vampire-like reincarnation of the past few years. From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, unemployment, interest rates, and price inflation all trended steadily lower simultaneously. This was thought to be impossible according to Keynesian dogma (along with the 1970s “stagflation” – the combination of high price inflation and slow economic growth).
Perhaps the biggest blockbuster of his presidency was his policy towards the Soviet Union. He firmly championed, and pursued policies to reflect, the fervent belief that Soviet Communism was a house of cards that would collapse of its own weight if only the West would stop propping it up economically. The results were dramatic.
He had plenty of flaws and inconsistencies, however. He supported the New Deal, and as president signed a bill raising Social Security taxes in order to save it for 75 years (remember that?). He helped ignite the Religious Right by courting them as part of the “Reagan Coalition”, swinging to their authoritarian social agenda including eroding the separation of church and state. He failed to fight hard enough to reign in government spending.
The Left has seized upon this last to transform Reagan into a welfare state icon. In The new party of Reagan, Dana Milbank writes:
After he switched to the Republican Party in 1962, Ronald Reagan famously quipped: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”
Now, the Republican Party is doing the same thing to him — and Democrats are happy to take Reagan back.
Milbank then reels off a litany of compromises Reagan made, both as Governor of California and President of the United States. They range from tax hikes to debt limit increases to a Medicare expansion. He is “revered by many Democrats”, a “procession” of whom “claimed Reagan’s support for their position…during the debt-limit debate”. Audio recordings of Reagan warning of the dangers of failing to raise the debt limit is the new rallying cry of the Democrats. There is even a quote from Mike Huckabee about how “he made deals with Democrats [and] compromised on things in order to move the ball down the field.”
But what are the Democrats really saying? Perhaps not exactly what they think they are saying. There is a lesson hidden behind the Democrats’ sudden resurrection of Reagan from liberal hell.
The NJ Star-Ledger weighs in:
[The GOP] is no longer the party of Ronald Reagan, who raised the debt limit 18 times and included tax hikes in 11 of them. He saw that deficits were skyrocketing on his watch, and he understood that compromising on his conservative principles was not the same as betraying them. He was a realist.
In answer, I left the following comment:
Zemack, posted July 22, 2011 at 6:59PM
In their enthusiasm to trash the Tea Party, the editors made the “radical Republicans’ ” case. Every budget Reagan sent to congress in the 1980s was declared “dead on arrival” by the liberal Democrats, who then so larded them up that even the surging federal tax revenues of the ‘80s, which doubled under Reagan’s watch, couldn’t keep up. Yet, Reagan “compromised his conservative principles” in the name of “realism”.
Imagine if, instead, Reagan had taken the “radical” stand of drawing the line somewhere along that parade of debt ceiling and tax increases? Imagine if he had stuck to his conservative principles and demanded that congress bring its spending into line with the generous revenue stream emanating from the Reagan economic boom? Imagine if his party then picked up where he could have left off, rather than go the way of neo-conservatism and George W. Bush.
The obvious lesson to be drawn here is that the explosive growth of the welfare state spending juggernaut – now at an astounding and destructive 25% of GDP - is driven by the Left’s best secret weapon, those principle-compromising Republicans. It’s a pattern that has been going on for decades. The Republicans are guilty, all right. We’ve been brought to the economic precipice by welfare statists traveling on a long road paved by conservative compromises.
Democrats are trying to save their winning strategy, by posthumously re-anointing Reagan back into their party. Suddenly, Reagan is the liberals’ new hero! But any retreat by the GOP on the very modest principle of no tax hikes would be disastrous. In fact, we need true reform proposals, starting with the complete privatization of SS and Medicare through personal accounts and a new low-rate flat income tax. The GOP – or at least part of it - is merely trying to hold the line, and only because of the much-needed intransigence of the Tea Party. You call that radical? I call it a starting point, because that’s not enough. The West’s and America’s economic crisis is a failure of the soft socialism of the welfare state. The Republicans need to go on offense with a pro-free market, pro-individual rights economic agenda. I have hope, but I’m not holding my breath.
But at least the editors clarified the issue for us, and demonstrated the value of today’s Tea Party.
Where did Reagan’s repeated compromises with the Left get the country. For one thing, they killed his own “Reagan Revolution”. Since Reagan, the welfare state has surged, especially over the past dozen years. No wonder the Dems suddenly want to hold Reagan up to the country as a model for today’s Republicans to emulate.
Of course, Reagan had his strengths, as I pointed out at the outset of this article – strengths that Democrats ignore. I believe that his strengths outweighed his weaknesses, even though his weaknesses – his compromises – helped sow the seeds for the problems we have today. The implications behind Reagan’s economic policies of income tax rate cuts, regulatory restraint, and support for a sound Fed monetary policy should be a model for any president who has widespread prosperity as a goal. But, as Steve Forbes recently observed, “Sadly, …President [Obama] does not … have much interest in slowing down Washington's spending machine, recognizing that big spending means more power for the central government.”
Amen! The Democrats are not interested in learning from Reagan’s strengths, either, because they are not interested in emulating Reagan's pro-growth economic policies and actually compromising on their principles. Their phony exaltation of Reagan contains a lesson for Republicans that they ignore at their, and the country’s, peril: compromising on your principles of free markets and limited government paves the way for expanded government and shrinking freedom.