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The real Reagan

Michael Kinsley, a contributing editor to Opinion, is The Times' former editorial page editor. He is also former editor of the New Republic, Slate and Harper's.

In the last few weeks, the Democratic Party has 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 GOP 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 over-polished this story a bit (it is 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”; “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 cliche is McCain’s: “Ronald Reagan came with an unshakable 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 would 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, because of 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.

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

McCain declared in Wednesday’s debate that he would appoint Supreme Court justices like John Roberts and Samuel 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 $74 billion. When he left office in 1989, taxes were $999 billion and spending was $1.14 trillion, for a deficit of $141 billion. As a share of the economy, Reagan did cut taxes, from 19.6% to 18.4%, and he cut spending from 22.2% to 21.2%, increasing the deficit from 2.6% to 2.8%. The deficit went as high as an incredible 5% of GDP during his term. As a result, the national debt soared by almost two-thirds. You can fiddle with these numbers -- assuming it takes a year or two for a president’s policies to take effect, or taking defense costs out -- and the basic result is the same or worse. Whatever, these numbers hardly constitute a “revolution.”

McCain’s stagy self-flagellation, on behalf of all Republicans, for betraying the Reagan revolution when they controlled Congress and the White House is entirely misplaced. George W. Bush and the GOP Congress did precisely what Reagan did: They cut taxes, mainly on the well-to-do, but they barely touched spending.

If the GOP is looking around for an icon to worship, it might consider Bill Clinton. He cut spending from 21.4% of GDP to 18.5% -- three times as much as Reagan. True, he raised taxes from 17.6% to 19.8%, but that’s still a smaller chunk than when Reagan left office. And he left us with an annual surplus that threatened to eliminate the national debt. What’s more, I think he’s available.


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