Even as the two political parties have merged in practice – with Republicans growing government at least as much as Democrats – partisanship is at an all-time high. Split almost 50-50, the American electorate has more and more trouble seeing any political nuance or gray area. It’s either left or right, red or blue, right or wrong.
Republicans in particular are a polarized lot – so much so that the topic of Republican obstructionism inspired the new book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” A lot of the hand-wringing on the right comes down to a fetish with Ronald Reagan, whose conservative legacy far eclipses the liberal reality of his presidency.
I’m not referring only to his original allegiance to the Democratic party. Yes, he began his career as a liberal Democrat – a supporter of “New Deal” entitlement policies, even, and a labor union president – but that’s too easy a shot to take. After all, views evolve.
What I do find it necessary to point out is that, even during the so-called halcyon days of conservatism under his watch, Reagan was hardly a small-government guru. In fact, in at least four areas, Reagan was at least as liberal as Barack Obama.
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1. Reagan raised taxes.
And not just once or twice or even just a few times. He raised taxes 11 times, totaling more than $130 billion in additional tax revenue. As significantly, he didn’t even hide his tax hikes, he celebrated them as a means of “stopping institutionalized unfairness” against the poor. That was his phrase, spoken proudly by him during a 1985 speech in Georgia. In the same speech, he declared:
“We’re going to close some of the unproductive tax loopholes that allow some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. … They sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary and that’s crazy.”
And then he asked the audience, “Do you think the millionaire ought to pay more than the bus driver, or less?” The audience, in unison, answered “More!” and Reagan smiled at the enthusiastic green-light to raise taxes.
2. Reagan raised the debt ceiling and the national debt.
Remember last summer when Congressional Republicans were having an absolute hissy fit that Obama proposed to raise the debt ceiling? Well, Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times during his years in the White House.
Not only that, but he more than tripled the national debt – from less than $1 trillion when he took office to nearly $3 trillion when he left Washington.
But that’s just what happens when you grow the federal government by 7 percent, which, as you may have guessed, Reagan also did.
3. Reagan may have personally opposed abortion, but he didn’t fight it.
In fact, as governor of California, he approved a permissive bill that, by some estimates, has led to 1 million abortions – many on a “therapeutic” or emotional basis.
And as president he failed to use his appointment powers to defeat the pro-life movement, appointing Sandra Day O’Connor herself – a pro-choice sympathizer if not an outright abortion advocate.
4. Reagan granted amnesty to illegal immigrants.
In 1986, he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, granting amnesty to nearly 3 million people.
Not only that, but even as he was soft on illegal immigrants themselves, he was hard on the businesses who had come to rely on their labor. Reagan’s law put the onus of enforcement on employers – similar to today’s E-Verify program – rather than requiring the federal government to follow its own immigration code.
See? Hardly a paragon of conservatism, Ronald Reagan was at least as liberal as Obama.
Not that that’s an entirely bad thing, of course. To be sure, some of Reagan’s policies were good and right, but they weren’t Republican. Millennial conservatives, rather than elevating Reagan as a small-government god, ought to take an honest look at his legacy – the real one, not the one crafted by revisionist historians.
Only then can the Republican party at last get back on track. Because as long as big-government Reagan is the right’s hero, big government is exactly what we’re going to keep getting from the right.
Contact Wilkes, a local political blogger, at m@mande wilkes.com.