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Reagan the RINO: How Far Right Has the Right Shifted?

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Slade Sohmer

By Slade Sohmer on April 19, 2011

This president is a president every conservative Republican and Tea Party member should loathe.

This president nearly tripled the national debt. This president signed an immigration reform bill that granted blanket amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. This president talked with our enemies. This president raised taxes 11 times. This president, in fact, raised payroll taxes in order to pay for government-run health care. This president presided over double-digit unemployment. This president expanded the size of government and created new federal departments. This president cut and ran, withdrawing troops from hostile regions. This president put two justices on the Supreme Court that voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. This president closed tax loopholes to ensure “every corporation pay their fair share.” This president even advocated gun control on the op-ed pages of the, gasp, New York Times.

But because this president also coined the Eleventh Commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican” — very few in his party have ever denounced Ronald Reagan for what would have to be considered by current conservative standards “the worst presidency in American history.”

Former President Ronald Reagan is often hailed as the patron saint of U.S. conservatism. Political celebrity Sarah Palin told a crowd celebrating Reagan’s 100th birthday in February that we need to “reconnect” with the Gipper’s principles and that “[Reagan’s] values will lead us back to prosperity.” The Heritage Foundation, Sean Hannity and talk radio host Laura Ingraham put together a full “What Would Reagan Do?” campaign. Rush Limbaugh commemorated Reagan on the day of his 2004 funeral by saying “I never met Reagan, but it wasn’t necessary to have met him in order to love him, which I do, and that’s as great a measure of greatness as I know.” In other words, Ronald Reagan ranks so high on the list of conservative heroes that Rush Limbaugh admitted to loving a male non-relative on air.

But compared to the Palins, Limbaughs, Bachmanns, Tea Party leaders and Fox News commentators that make up the current ideological head of the conservative mega-beast, Reagan is at best a centrist. At worst — strictly looking at governance, not ideology — he governed far more liberally than the job-killing, tax-raising, enemy-appeasing, immigrant-loving Barack Obama.

Can you imagine the vitriol from Fox News if President Obama granted amnesty to illegal immigrants? Can you imagine the venom on Tea Party signs if President Obama raised taxes 11 times, called out corporations for tax loopholes and nearly tripled the national debt? Can you imagine the uproar from talk radio if President Obama actually wrote an op-ed advocating any restrictions on the sale of handguns? The right-wing echo chamber might implode upon itself in a fit of blind rage.

For all the criticism launched at President Obama from his right, consider Ronald Reagan’s legacy:

Debt: Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981. At the time, the deficit he called “out of control” was about $74 billion; the federal debt, $908 billion. Two years later, the annual deficit was already above $200 billion. By 1988, our debt totaled $2.6 trillion. The road to being a debtor nation in perpetuity started with the Gipper. As for debt as a percentage of GDP, this chart doesn’t help his case any:

Government Spending: In 1980, the last year of the Carter administration, the federal government spent $591 billion. In 1988, the last year of Reagan’s, federal spending was up to $1.064 trillion. He also expanded the size of the government’s workforce, including the creation of a whole new department. He had pledged to eliminate the Departments of Education and Energy — instead he created the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Income Taxes: Ideologically, Reagan was a tax cutter. And soon after his inauguration in 1981, he signed into law one of the largest tax cuts in the modern history. In fact, he is likely so beloved because under his leadership the very top income tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent.

But he also saw the growing budget deficit and the need to raise more revenue, so signed into law measures that did just that. Reagan followed up his 1981 cuts by raising taxes in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986. He raised taxes 11 times. Tax historian Joseph Thorndike notes that, taken together, the two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 “constituted the biggest tax increase ever enacted during peacetime.”

The kicker comes from 1983, when President Reagan signed off on Social Security reform legislation that accelerated an increase in the payroll tax rate and required self-employed citizens to pay the full payroll tax rate, among other hikes. The irony that President Reagan raised taxes in order to pay for government-run programs has somehow been lost by the conservative movement through the years.

Corporate Taxes: The 1986 Tax Reform Act wasn’t as friendly to big business as people fondly remember. As ThinkProgress noted on Tax Day, “This law ‘raised corporate taxes by $120 billion over five years and closed corporate tax loopholes worth about $300 billion over that same period.'” Reagan, during the signing ceremony, said, “We’re going to make it economical to raise children again. Flatter rates will mean more reward for that extra effort, and vanishing loopholes and a minimum tax will mean that everybody and every corporation pay their fair share.” Watch him say the words:

Immigration: Reagan’s administration didn’t just look the other way on illegal immigration — it granted full amnesty to nearly three million “illegal aliens” under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Not only that, but any hint of employer sanctions in the bill were softened by the protective “affirmative defense” clause and in Reagan’s signing statement. Can you imagine the talk radio uproar at the annual Hold Their Feet to the Fire conference in DC if Obama did that?

Cutting and Running: During the Lebanese Civil War in 1983, suicide bombers detonated truck bombs at the American Marines barracks in Beiruit. The death toll: 241 American servicemen. Sixty more Americans were injured. Reagan didn’t exactly cowboy up: Our Marines were moved offshore before Reagan completed the withdrawal of our remaining troops four months after the attack.

Talking With Enemies: See: Cold War, End

Gun control: On March 29, 1991, Reagan published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Why I’m for the Brady Bill.” The bill legislates a waiting period, background checks and prohibitions. Why does President Reagan want to take away your guns?

Believe it or not, the point of this exercise is not to bash Ronald Reagan. His conservative bona fides are many. This isn’t simply another “The Myth of Reagan” piece. But it’s interesting to see how far right the right has moved along the political spectrum, and how they’ve dragged the center to the right with it. Ronald Reagan has long been the stake in the ground of conservative politics. But now the big tent has lurched so far to the right that his stake sits over on the left side of the tent.

The far right (read: just about everyone on the right these days) can learn a thing or two from a reading of Reagan’s legacy. The Gipper wasn’t as ideologically strict as they remember him. He raised taxes because the government needed revenue. He legalized undocumented immigrants because it was humane and it benefited the economy. He increased our national debt to get the economy moving again. He met with Gorbachev because it was the only way to engender true peace between Cold War nations.

But by today’s standards, President Ronald Reagan would be the right’s RINO Public Enemy #1.

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