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Revisionism is Alive and Well

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“There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government. That is the message of the Reagan years.”
Ron Paul 1987

Politicians have a tendency to change history to suit their purposes. The revising of history by Soviet dictators was legendary. Our own leaders have on occasion been guilty of distorting, reconfiguring, or downright lying about past events. Most notable are the claims that Abraham Lincoln launched the Civil War to end slavery and that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal ended the Great Depression.

One of the greatest revisionist histories perpetuated in the latter part of the 20th Century by both Republicans and Democrats alike is that Ronald Reagan was a conservative, limited government president. Republicans praise him for his record of getting the government off our backs and dramatically reducing the size of the federal leviathan. Democrats vilify him for weakening programs that helped the underclass and for reducing the scope of government needed to ensure economic prosperity. Both Republicans and Democrats couldn’t be further from the truth in their thinking.

In the first place, government got exponentially larger during Reagan’s eight years as president. For instance, during the 1980 race for the White House, Reagan made a cornerstone of his campaign the elimination of federal agencies and departments. In particular, he proposed abolishing the Departments of Education and Energy. Instead of eliminating those wasteful departments, by the end of his term Reagan had doubled their budgets and created another department: the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In eight years as president, the former B Actor hired 230,000 more bureaucrats. How is that the work of a small government president?

Reagan is also portrayed as a tax reducer by both sides. Up to that point in our history, he was one of the biggest tax increasers of all time. He increased taxes and fees on everything from gasoline to trucking to Social Security. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 was the largest tax increase in American history to that point. It rolled back many business tax cuts enacted during his first year in office. The remarkable thing is that given his reputation for being a dedicated tax cutter, by the time he left office in January 1989 tax revenues were still 24.7 percent of national income, only slightly down from 25.1 percent when he took office in 1981. The facts bear proof that Reagan was no tax cutter.

“Thanks to the president (Reagan) and Republican Party, we have lost the chance to reduce the deficit and the spending in a non-crisis fashion.”

Ron Paul 1987

Lastly, analysis of Reagan’s conservative credentials would be grossly incomplete without a review of federal spending during his administration. One could conclude by looking at Reagan’s spending alone that he was not a free market dyed in the wool capitalist, but a big state liberal. In eight years as president the Gipper never proposed a budget smaller than the preceding year’s. Federal farm program spending went from $21.4 billion in 1981 to $51.4 billion in 1987, a 140 percent increase. Entitlements, which cost $197.1 billion in 1981, cost $477 billion in 1987, another 140 percent increase. Even foreign aid, long a target of conservatives’ wrath, was doubled under Reagan. As everyone knows by now, the welfare state was not inaccessible to the military industrial complex either. Reagan increased military spending enormously during his presidency. At the end of his spending binge he managed to triple the federal debt to $2.7 trillion by 1989 and paved the way for future administrations to spend like drunken sailors.

While most conservatives celebrate Reagan for his “small government” credentials and most liberals slander him for dismantling the federal government, remember that actions speak louder than words. Reagan spoke a good game about eliminating government but rarely produced those results. After eight years of his presidency, the federal government was much larger and more intrusive in our lives. Thus revisionist history is alive and well, at least when it comes to the Great Communicator’s presidency. So the next time you hear Perry, Romney, or some of the other unprincipled Republican candidate for president praise the Gipper and claim they are his heir apparent, remember Reagan’s real record and consider whether we can afford another president like him.

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About Kenn Jacobine

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Well said, Kenn. In my journey learning about political history, I’ve learned much to my surprise almost precisely what you wrote in your article. What’s more, I’ve learned that Reagan stood firm in protecting our manufacturing base by keeping our tariffs in place…which was NOT what the conservatives wanted. Then Clinton came along, supported NAFTA with the conservatives and against the liberals…and we’ve lost tens of thousands of factories to offshoring since then. Economically speaking, Clinton was MUCH more conservative than Reagan. But Reagan is not without fault, for he made war against the unions, and our unions – and our middle class – has only shrunk since then.

    It’s nice to see an article by a conservative historian with which I don’t vehemently disagree. Well done, Kenn

  • Chet

    What about the Iran-Contra debacle, funding and supporting: the Afghanistan Taliban/Alqueda against the USSR (resulting, in part, with 9/11/01), Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Anti-Sandinistas ( The Contras ) terror groups in Central America, funding/supporting brutal African dictators who were anti-communistic (USSR), etc.

  • Johncap523

    Bravo, we agree! Reagan is a myth created as a counter to FDR by a GOP desperate to recover after the Nixon fiasco. He ranks pretty low on the Presidential charts, actually. And the reference to him being a B actor is spot on. I use that all the time!

  • Johncap523

    @Glenn, good additional points. Reagan did foster in the era of vilifying the middle class and persistent attacks on unions and, as you said, the result, in part due to Reagan is further shrinkage of the middle class and middle class wealth.

    Clinton IS ranked as the second most Conservative President of the last 100 years after Eisenhower.

  • Kenn Jacobine

    John and Glenn,

    I thought you guys were liberals who blame Reagan for dismantling the government and therefore hurting working families? In my article, the jist is that he was a liberal like y’all.

  • Clavos

    …except, of course, for his sex life…

  • Clavos

    #6 is intended to follow #4…

  • pablo

    Nice article.

  • Adjusted for inflation, did Reagan really propose progressively larger budgets each year? Just curious.

  • Kenn Jacobine

    In dollar terms he did, adjusted for inflation there was one year that he didn’t – 1987.

  • “Clinton IS ranked as the second most Conservative President of the last 100 years after Eisenhower.”

    I’d love to see a cite for this…

  • Igor

    Reagan was a Big Government Big Business republican. Big Business needs Big Government for financial and political support. Rather like feudalism.