Saturday, February 2

dreaming of 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.

...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.

...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 $999 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. True, he raised taxes from 17.6 percent to 19.8 percent, but that's still a smaller chunk than the government was claiming when Reagan left office. 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.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time and the founding editor of Slate.