The Reimagining of Ronald Reagan

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Last week, the GOP had their second debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. Hallowed ground for Republicans. The debate went as expected, with candidates insulting and sniping at each other all the while paying devout homage to the patron saint of the Republican Party, St. Ronald Reagan.

Let’s look back at a few of Reagan’s policies to better understand who this ultimate creator of current GOP principles really was.

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Prolific Tax Raiser
As President, Reagan raised taxes in seven of his eight years in office. Here’s a quote from former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, on a broadcast on NPR:

Ronald Reagan raised taxes 11 times in his administration. I was here. I was here. I knew him. Better than anybody in this room. He was a dear friend and a total realist as to politics.

Here’s another from that same broadcast:

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‘Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes,’ said historian Douglas Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s memoir.

Reagan was also a tax cutter — but only for the wealthy. (Come on, readers, you should know better than to hope.) So while he did raise taxes — including $3.3 billion in gasoline tax (the Highway Revenue Act) and increasing the Social Security tax rate (in 1983) — Reaganomics cut taxes on the wealthy from 70% to 28%. All that extra cold hard cash made the ladies of Park Avenue swoon and the men of Wall Street increase their cocaine budget. What else did Reaganomics do? It grew the national debt to nearly $3 trillion by 1989, when Reagan left office! This noble idea was called “trickle-down economics” — that if the wealthy have more dollars to spread around, they will grow their businesses and create jobs for the American people. But of course that didn’t happen. Jobs got shipped overseas, executives pocketed their money and we had the obscene gold glitter-bomb that was the 1980s — when Donald Trump at his most gilded and vulgar best! A fun fact about that nearly $3 trillion is that Federal debt was just $994 billion when Reagan took office in 1981. So he was a tax-cutter, yes, but definitely a tax-raiser. Today’s Republicans cite Reagan as their model for fiscal conservatism, but their model raised taxes and spent trillions more than there was revenue to spend.

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Reagan signing legislation with members of the California legislature surrounding him. Photo courtesy: California Senate Archive.
California legislators surrounding Reagan. Photo: California Senate Archive.

Raising the Roof…on the Debt Ceiling
Instead of shutting down the government, whining like a petulant child and costing the nation billions of dollars, Reagan signed legislation to raise the Federal debt limit 18 times. Writing to Howard Baker, the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, Reagan stressed the point that raising the debt ceiling was simply making sure there was enough money in the treasury to pay our bills. Like any responsible adult, he did not want to default on our debts and lower our credit rating.

Reagan believed in paying what you owe when you owe it.

Pro-Life, Sort Of
Was Reagan pro-life? Only to get elected President. Like most Republican men and rational people, Reagan was not in favor of abortion. (Honestly, I don’t know anyone who is pro-abortion.) However, the current crop of religious terrorists seeking the Presidency cannot stop trying to legislate their own personal Biblical views on abortion and women’s health in general. Back in August, Jeb! Bush said in a speech, I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.” Of course not, because men know best and I just need to get my man a beer and stick an aspirin between my knees or have his unlimited babies.

Unlike our current crop of religious fanatics, Reagan did little to fight a woman’s right to choose. As governor of California in 1967, Reagan signed a bill to liberalize the state’s abortion laws; more than a million abortions resulted. Reagan ran for President touting the party line of creating Constitutional amendment to prohibit all abortions except when necessary to save the life of the mother. Whereas the current Republican candidates, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, would rather the mother die.

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Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library.
Reagan giving a speech in 1980 at Liberty State Park. Courtesy: Ronald Reagan Library.

Amnesty, Amigos!
Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants — something unthinkable today. Just saying the word “amnesty” can get you thrown out of the Republican Party now, and possibly into jail in some states. Showing compassion is unheard of in the 2016 GOP lineup. Yet, in the year that we celebrated the Statue of Liberty’s centenary, Reagan made all liberals proud when he let any immigrant who had entered the country before 1982 become eligible for that amnesty. Today, a third of the GOP celebrates Donald Trump’s idea of rounding up 11 million people, putting them on trains and kicking them out. Don’t forget to take 2.6 million Muslims with you, amigos!

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Gay Gay Go Go
Something the current GOP has in common with Reagan is hostilty toward gays. Or does it? What did Reagan really feel about gays in this country? While his record is sorely lacking in compassion — especially his unwillingness to utter the word “AIDS” until 1987, after more than 20,000 people had died — we also know that Reagan, between his governorship and his presidency, opposed the Briggs Initiative. This was legislation on the 1978 ballot to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. Imagine a Republican candidate doing that today? No, we are  perilously close to the days of Anita Bryant all over again. The current crop of virulently anti-gay religious candidates truly believe the Bible is the law of the land — a chilling reminder that the fight is not over for full equality. What Reagan did by opposing the Briggs Initiative would make him ineligible to run on the GOP ticket today.

United We Stand
For most of his life, Reagan was an active union member. He was, and still is, the only person to serve twice as president of Screen Actors Guild (1946 to 1952 and 1959 to 1960). Reagan supported FDR’s New Deal. He supported Eisenhower’s highway and infrastructure programs. Like most Republicans, he only turned anti-union when he ran for President. The union-busting GOP of today continuously blocks funding to repair the crumbling roads, highways and bridges built by the GOP of the 1950s.

Give Peace a Chance
The current GOP has no lack of hawkish candidates interested in putting other people’s boots on the ground all over the world. Reagan, however, was a dove. Who says? Presidential biographer Stephen E. Ambrose, writing for the conservative Heritage Foundation, that’s who:

He has been like Dwight Eisenhower in a number of ways: talking tough while maintaining the peace, using the CIA’s covert capabilities rather than the Armed Forces’ overt firepower to support his policies in the Third World, using a show of force rather than force itself in the Middle East while attempting to maintain an even-handed policy toward the antagonists.

Conclusion
We all like a little revisionist history, right? Who doesn’t like to be thought of as smarter, wittier and generally better than we are? However, the way the current crop of GOP candidates has revised Reagan, contorted his life and presidency to fit their agenda, tells me that either they have no idea who he was or just don’t care. The revisionist Reagan would lead the polls. The actual Reagan wouldn’t even make the second-tier debate.

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