Like-minded conservatives invoke the name of Ronald Reagan as someone who truly represented core conservative ideals. Almost twenty years after Reagan’s presidency ended, he remains a beloved figure. According to conservative activists, lowering taxes, promoting free trade, defending the sanctity of life, and reining in government spending are Reagan’s legacy, and they are his true heirs. But McCain, they charge, has betrayed the Reaganite faith by compromising these very ideals.For months Republican front-runner John McCain has attracted the ire of conservative activists who doubt his conservative credentials. Hard-line conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh claims to want a Democrat as president rather than the Arizona Republican. As Limbaugh puts it, “I would prefer not to have conservative Republicans in the Congress paralyzed by having to support, out of party loyalty, a Republican president who is not conservative.”
Yet these same conservatives remember Reagan’s record selectively. Were they to look behind the rhetoric, they would discover that Reagan often embraced policies sharply at odds with conservative philosophy.
Almost all conservatives oppose abortion. But in 1967, only four months into his first term as governor of California, Reagan signed into law a bill that resulted in millions of abortions due to a provision in the bill allowing abortions for the well-being of the mother. Times have changed. Few of today’s conservatives would support a politician who signed a similar bill. Among the ten major Republicans who have run for president this year, only Rudolph Giuliani supported abortion rights.
Today’s conservatives proclaim their support for balanced budgets and decry deficit spending. However, the former president’s economic policy, called “Reaganomics,” produced huge federal budget deficits and increased the national debt from $700 billion to $3 trillion. The current crop of conservatives would surely denounce any president with this record.
During the current presidential campaign, all the Republican candidates pledged to make the tax cuts of George W. Bush permanent. But in 1982, Reagan signed into law two major tax increases that raised taxes by about $40 billion per year, making it the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history. In today’s dollars, that would surpass $100 billion per year. Were a current presidential candidate even to admit to the possibility that he or she might raise taxes, conservatives would quickly pounce. Both Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney were tarred by their rivals as tax raisers.
In 1983 Reagan approved legislation raising the Social Security tax rate, which included automatic increases in the taxable wage base. In 1984, Reagan signed the Deficit Reduction Act, which increased taxes by $18 billion a year or 0.4 percent of GDP. That represents about $44 billion in today’s dollars. He also raised taxes in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Combined, these tax increases raised taxes by $164 billion as of 1992. Put another way, that amount equals about $300 billion in today’s economy.
Conservatives also argue that the U.S. government must stop illegal immigration and reject amnesty for those who have already crossed the border. In 1986 Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit illegal immigrants. This same bill also granted amnesty to approximately three million illegal immigrants who entered the country prior to January 1, 1982, and lived here continuously. Conservatives now denounce amnesty as rewarding lawbreakers. In response, John McCain has begun to backtrack on his support for immigration reform.
Today’s conservatives would be well served to study what Reagan actually did in office. They could learn much from him. He understood when to press his advantage when he had the votes. He also knew how to concede when he didn’t have the votes. In other words, he was a skilled politician willing to compromise his ideological principles in order to govern. In remembering Ronald Reagan, just as in deciding whom to vote for, conservatives ought to look at the whole man, not just the aspects that are politically convenient.
Michael H. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.