Remembering Reagan

How Romney and McCain rewrite history.

In the past few weeks, the Democratic Party has suddenly turned on Bill Clinton with the ferocity of 16 years of pent-up resentments. He will not be cut any more slack, and neither will his wife. Meanwhile, the Republican primaries have turned into a Ronald Reagan Adoration Contest. Neither ex-president deserves what he is getting. Clinton is a victim of long memories; Reagan is a beneficiary of short ones.

In the Republican debate at the Reagan Library on Wednesday, Sen. John McCain repeated his story about how he and other prisoners of war used to discuss this exciting new governor of California using tap codes through the walls of a North Vietnamese prison. Like many of the great man’s own treasured anecdotes, it might be true. Unlike Reagan, McCain is a genuine war hero, so if he has overpolished this story a bit (it comes out almost word-for-word each time), he is honoring the great man by imitation if nothing else. In the debate, McCain repeatedly called himself a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution.” He declared that Republicans have “betrayed Ronald Reagan’s principles about tax cuts and restraint of spending.”

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, kept repeating, inanely, “We’re in the house that Reagan built.” Reagan “would say lower taxes,” and “Reagan would say lower spending.” Reagan “would say no way” to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Reagan would never “walk out of Iraq.” And, by the way, McCain’s accusation that Romney harbors a secret timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is “the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible.”

A problem: Reagan actually signed the law that authorized the last amnesty, back in 1986. Romney deals with this small difficulty by declaring, “Reagan saw it. It didn’t work.” He offers no evidence that Reagan had a change of heart about amnesty, and learning from experience was not something Reagan was known for. The proper cliché is McCain’s: “Ronald Reagan came with an unshakeable set of principles.” And—pointedly—”he would not approve of someone who changes their positions depending on what the year is.”

All of this is what Democrats these days refer to as “a fairy tale.” There is no evidence that Reagan was bothered by the rough-and-tumble of political campaigns. Mischaracterization of an opponent didn’t even qualify as a “dirty trick” to Reagan, due to his fantastic ability to believe anything helpful. Compare Romney’s whining about how McCain didn’t give him enough time to respond to the Iraq timetable accusation with Reagan’s masterful “There you go again,” against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Would Reagan “walk out of” Iraq? Far from clear. He scurried out of Lebanon fast enough after things got hot there in 1984. During the Reagan years, the United States was actually pro-Iraq in its war against Iran, although we also sold weapons to Iran in order to raise money for a terrorist war we were secretly financing in Nicaragua, while denouncing terrorism. It’s hard to find any “unshakeable set of principles” in this mess.

McCain declared in Wednesday’s debate that he would appoint Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Sam Alito—that is, reliable conservatives. Romney characteristically upped the ante: “I would approve justices like Roberts and Alito, Scalia and Thomas.” Roberts and Alito were appointed by George W. Bush, and Clarence Thomas was appointed by his father. Reagan did appoint Antonin Scalia, but he also appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, an unbending pragmatist who postponed the conservative revolution in constitutional law for a generation.

But the biggest fairy tale about Reagan is the most central one: about taxes and spending. It is one thing to sit in a North Vietnamese prison in the early 1970s, dreaming of a California governor who one day will balance the federal budget. It is another to imagine that it actually happened. When Reagan took office in 1981, federal receipts (taxes) were $517 billion and outlays (spending) were $591 billion, for a deficit of $73 billion.  When he left office in 1989, taxes were $991 billion and spending was $1.14 trillion, for a deficit of $153 billion. * As a share of the economy (the fairest measure), Reagan did cut taxes, from 19.6 percent to 18.4 percent, and he cut spending from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent, increasing the deficit from 2.6 percent to 2.8 percent. The deficit went as high as an incredible 5 percent of GDP during Reagan’s term. As a result, the national debt soared by almost two-thirds. You can fiddle with these numbers—assuming that it takes another year or two for a president’s policies to take effect, or taking defense costs out of your calculation, and the basic result is the same or worse. Whatever, these numbers hardly constitute a “revolution.”

John McCain’s stagy self-flagellation, on behalf of all Republicans, for betraying the Reagan Revolution when they controlled Congress and the White House at the beginning of this decade, is entirely misplaced. In fact, George W. Bush and the Republican Congress did precisely what Reagan did: They cut taxes, mainly on the well-to-do, but they barely touched spending. If the Republicans are looking around for an icon to worship, they might consider Bill Clinton. He cut spending from 21.4 percent of GDP to 18.5 percent. That’s three times as much as Reagan did. * And, of course, he left us with an annual surplus that threatened to eliminate the national debt.

What’s more, I think he’s available.

Correction, Feb. 6, 2008: An earlier version of this piece misstated these taxes. They were $991 billion, not $999 billion as originally reported. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Feb. 11, 2008: This piece originally included information about taxes being a higher share of the economy at the end of the Reagan administration than at the end of the Clinton administration, which was incorrect. That sentence has been eliminated. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)