EFM reader–and, as he points out, trained historian–Woody sent the below in response to my post “Dreaming in Iowa.” He is significantly, significantly less complimentary about President Reagan than I would be, and I don’t think I quite made the argument that Governor Reagan had “liberal, New Deal views” (more that he wasn’t perfect), but read it for yourself:
I am a Romney supporter and a fan and frequent reader of EFM. As a trained historian, I appreciate your post on Reagan in which you demythologize the idea that he was a lifelong conservative by noting his liberal, New Deal views while governor of California.
Still, I wonder if it falls short of a full explanation. By confining Reagan’s big government liberalism to his governorship, the post seems to be cordoning off the Reagan Presidency from some perceived sully or alloy, as though its conservativism is something that must be assumed and preserved and is therefore beyond interrogation, as when you say that you are sure that Reagan was really “a conservative.” What would it mean to say that Reagan the President was not a conservative, that the man was more complicated than a single word could ever encapsulate?
The problem with defending a label like “conservative” is that it creates a monolith that does not match up with historical reality. The definition of conservatism changes over time, and the causes that readers today think define “conservatism” may not match how Reagan understood the word or his relation to the movement in his own time. Further, the word tends to flatten politics into ideological absolutism when the reality is much more pragmatic and conflictual; politicians often have to make trade offs across the political isle, softening ideological edges even in their own mind. Finally, Reagan often spoke a strong conservative line but did not back it up with action. What this means is that we may be creating a conservative icon who never existed.
It is true that Reagan’s tax cuts probably warrant the label of conservative. A 23% across-the-board tax cut, including 20% in the highest margin, certainly incurred the wrath of the opposing party.
But his record on “big government” is more complicated. Reagan often denounced big government, but it is well known that in actually he made it bigger. Way bigger. He inherited a deficit of $80 billion and increased it to $200 billion. This was not simply a matter of increasing defense spending, as is often assumed. Federal civilian employment increased from 2.9 to 3.1 million under his tenure. The national debt tripled from $914 billion to $2.7 trillion. Some of this was Congressional spending, but Reagan must bear much of the responsibility. He never submitted a balanced budget during his eight years in office. By the time he left office, national debt was 53% of the GDP, compared with 33 % when he took office.
We also forget that Reagan did nothing to cut back on the numerous entitlements that Americans had grown to cherish since the says of FDR and LBJ. He made almost no effort to cut back the largest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare. Other liberal-inspired programs like Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) also expanded under Reagan.
Reagan is often credited for stopping runaway inflation that started under Carter. But we forget that things got worse under Reagan’s watch before they got better. Unemployment averaged 9.7% in 1982, the highest since the Great Depression. We also forget that Reagan supported the policies of Federal Board chairman Paul Volcker, who initiated his reform policies while Carter was still in office. We Republicans often talk about CArter and Reagan as though they were night and day, although we forget the very real continuities between the two.
On abortion, of course, Reagan talked the strong talk, but it was all campain bluster. In point of fact he never took any concrete steps to change Rowe v Wade. He never spoke in person at an abortion rally during his presidency. (One speech, if I am not mistaken, was broadcast.) His Christianity hardly qualifies him as evangelical, much less observant. He seldom went to church and never claimed to have been born again.
Why then, if Reagan’s record is so mixed, do we feel so good about him, do we look back with nostalgia upon his presidency? Why do we accord him the mantel of being a “true” conservative?
Quite simply, he made us feel good. He was an optimist in a world of nuclear proliferation. He was a strong-armed protector at a time of uncertainty. His held office at a time when the U.S. economy grew at unprecedented rates, allowing many people to associate him with happy moments. The prosperity, together with his role in the collapse of the evil empire, allowed us to look back on his tenure (at least the second term) fondly, and we gladly accord him our most cherished labels. He road in on his white horse and gallantly swepped us away from our deepest fears. His charity and good fortune covered a multitude of sins.
Perhaps in some future post you would be willing to go further still in demythologizing the conservative legend of Reagan. I have nothing against the man; I am saying the record, the deeds–and not the label–should speak the truth. And if the record is complicated we should say it. It may help conservatives see that Romney’s alleged flip flopping is not a character flaw. It is the business of politics, even of icons.
(I should add that the stats quoted above came from James Patterson’s even-handed history, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore [Oxford University Press, 2005], 158-65. Patterson, a Bancroft-awarded winning historian, gives critics and fans equal air time like few others do. See also the spate of Reagan biographies reviewed in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, here http://www.nybooks.com/articles/19910)