Follow the Leader

Why haven’t today’s right-wingers crossed Ronald Reagan off their list of idols? And could our side learn something from them?

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged conservatismRepublicans

Back in October, shortly after the government shutdown, I was on “Hardball” opposite Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks. If you don’t watch the show, you don’t know that host Chris Matthews has been obsessive on the topic of Republican Party extremism—since 2009, in a way, but with a redoubled or (if I may) retripled intensity in these last few months.

“Saturday Night Live” parodies Matthews by having the actor who plays him constantly scream over and interrupt his guests. In real life that doesn’t actually happen as often as people think, but this segment came close to parody as Matthews kept badgering Kibbe—and appropriately so—about what on earth Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and the Tea Party people in the House thought they were accomplishing. I was permitted two quick verbal incursions, so I mostly just watched. I thought I was watching with a bemused smile on my face (on TV, the camera might flip to you at any moment, so you need to think about the mien you wish to convey even when you’re just listening), but my neighbor, who saw the segment, told me I looked like my head was about to explode.

Anyway, it culminated with Matthews asking Kibbe what recent politician, what recent President, lived up to his demanding standards. And of course he said, “Ronald Reagan.” It wasn’t simply the fact that he said it. It was the way he said it: a slight dramatic pause, a shift in tone from the combative to the reverential; if it had been a movie, a quivering violin would have started up quietly in the background just before he spoke the words, the kind of incidental music that’s meant to suggest the arrival, after much bluster and artifice, of a moment of emotional truth.

Now. You know and I know that if Reagan were a senator today, Kibbe and his sort would be calling him a fraud and a quisling and recruiting some wealthy purifier to primary him. More on the particulars of that later. In the moment, Matthews was letting him get away with it. I, during the closing salutations, blurted out: “Big spender!” But I don’t think many people heard me, so Kibbe went unanswered.

As I drove home I thought two things. First, these people shouldn’t be allowed to use Reagan anymore; how can we make them stop? But second: Why do they keep using him? Given what they believe these days versus what President Reagan actually did, why haven’t they scratched him off the list of idols? This is the more interesting question, because it turns out that liberals and conservatives treat their idols very differently, treatment that reflects, I suppose, the general posture of each side toward authority figures. This is all fine, but sometimes it has actual policy implications, and maybe progressives could learn something from the kind of vacuous adulation Kibbe evinced that night on television.

First, let’s make the case against Reagan as Tea Party icon, which is easy. I could have tossed out a few different curses at the end of that segment (“Tax increaser! Evil appeaser!”), but I chose “big spender” for a reason. Reagan didn’t cut a dime from total federal spending. If Barack Obama had spent like Reagan did, the Tea Party people would be…I was about to say calling for impeachment, but since they’re doing that anyway, let’s say calling for reinstitution of the guillotine. And it’s not, of course, as if observers didn’t know this at the time. Here is a taste of a critique from the Mises Institute from October 1988, as the sainted one was cleaning out the file drawers:

The budget for the Department of Education, which candidate Reagan promised to abolish along with the Department of Energy, has more than doubled to $22.7 billion, Social Security spending has risen from $179 billion in 1981 to $269 billion in 1986. The price of farm programs went from $21.4 billion in 1981 to $51.4 billion in 1987, a 140% increase. And this doesn’t count the recently signed $4 billion “drought-relief” measure. Medicare spending in 1981 was $43.5 billion; in 1987 it hit $80 billion. Federal entitlements cost $197.1 billion in 1981—and $477 billion in 1987.

It goes on in that vein—and, believe me, on. Comparing recent Presidents, spending as a percentage of GDP has indeed been highest under Obama, largely because of the first-year stimulus bill. But it was second-highest under Reagan, who never had a year in which spending was less than 20 percent of GDP, a benchmark, to today’s right, of insane profligacy.

Reagan raised the payroll tax, in a deal with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, from 4.2 percent to the current 6.2 percent. That was a tax increase on every working American. Also: There has been only one time in the recent history of American taxation when capital gains were taxed at the same rate as regular income. That rate was 28 percent, and it happened under Reagan, after the Tax Reform Act of 1986. He also expanded the earned-income tax credit, which exempted millions of 47 percenters from paying taxes.

Reagan did, of course, lower tax rates, and by a lot. And it wasn’t just the fact of cutting the rates: He seemed to prove that chopping the top rate on upper-income earners by two-thirds unleashed the dynamism yadda yadda yadda, although the truth is more complicated. There was also the matter of the deficit, which he more than doubled, up to around $150 billion, which was a lot of money in those days and was in no small part a direct consequence of the fact that not as much tax revenue was coming into the coffers.

Then there’s foreign policy, where 241 American troops were killed in Beirut and Reagan did…nothing, and where he made peace with Mikhail Gorbachev. And don’t forget the 1986 immigration bill; the man was Mr. Amnesty. Reagan turned out to be a conservative and sometimes moderate deal-maker of a President, exactly the kind of person the Tea Party today abhors.

So why is he beatified? As noted above, certain items can be plucked from the record: the income-tax decrease, and the fact that the Soviet Union began to collapse while he was President. (But note that it did in fact collapse under George H.W. Bush; what credit does today’s right ever give him?) Also, Reagan went out on top, handing the reins to his anointed successor and leaving the country in good shape. But of course the worship has less to do with Reagan’s record than with a certain psychological need among right-wingers to have a hero to throw in liberals’ faces and make them flustered.

It’s been my experience over the years that nothing in the political arena gives right-wingers more joy than when they manage to make liberals really, really upset. This instinct now has a name in the Internet era (“trolling”), and one sees it constantly on display in, for example, the headlines written by some of the newer conservative websites, which phrase things so as to generate the maximum possible liberal outrage. Conservatives know that liberals hate Reagan. So therefore, they will venerate him to the heavens as long as that’s the case.

This means, in turn, that they will overlook the spending, the tax increases, the Gorby-stroking; mere details. Conservatives are, or seem to be from the outside, completely at ease in accentuating the positive and defenestrating the negative. I’ve developed a certain respect for it, this sanguine ability to ignore that which one wishes to ignore.

Liberals are different. Any progressive person assessing in public the legacy of Lyndon Johnson will start out with civil rights and the Great Society. But the audience will start getting twitchy, suspecting that you’re trying to con them, if you don’t work Vietnam in there pretty quickly. Bill Clinton? Forget it, poor guy. He did all kinds of progressive things, but if you fail to emphasize welfare reform, NAFTA, and the Defense of Marriage Act, you’re a hack apologist. Even FDR gets it. Saved the world from fascism? Yeah, well, what about those Japanese-American internment camps?

Maybe conservatives do this in private. To be fair, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, and a few others have said in recent years that Reagan would have trouble getting elected in today’s GOP. But liberals do it in public far more regularly and insistently. And another key point: Liberals do it in public in real time. This is crucial. You know how it’s conventional wisdom on the right these days, has been since sometime in 2009, that George W. Bush was a wasteful spender, a betrayer of conservatism who (with Karl Rove) led the GOP toward moral error? (“We lost our way,” said former Congressman Mike Pence, now the governor of Indiana.) Well, nice that they think that now. In real time, Pence and Paul Ryan and everyone else who’s spouted gibberish about losing their way voted for every item on the Bush-Rove agenda.

As I said above, I suppose it has to do with each side’s attitude toward authority. Conservatives are more naturally deferential, liberals more instinctively rebellious. This is not of course always true, but it certainly describes each clan’s general posture. I’m happy to be on the side of the divide that I’m on. Indeed it’s one of the key reasons I’m on that side. Even so, I think there may be times when we overdo it.

I remember when George W. Bush’s tax cuts passed. His Administration actually made a fair number of compromises to get that bill through Congress—lowered the overall amount, but had to make it so they had to be renewed every ten years (alas, they’re permanent now). But most conservative commentators didn’t say “meh.” They said this was a staggering accomplishment.

When the Affordable Care Act passed, yes, there was a lot of celebration on the broad left, but there was also a great deal of public hand-wringing about its shortcomings. The folks pointing them out had good substantive points. At heart, I’m a single-payer man myself, mainly because it would just be so much simpler.

But the complaints were, I think, only partially about the substance. Somewhere deep down inside, way down in those depths that only psychoanalysts explore, liberals want to complain about their leaders. They want to be left a little disappointed. The world, to a liberal, is always a work in progress, so by definition everything can’t be right. There is always more to do. Conservatives see things the other way around. The world is not perfectible or even all that improvable. Instead of wanting secretly to be left a little disappointed, they are perhaps content to be left only partially pleased.

The paradox here, as concerns the Tea Partiers, is that they’re temperamentally more like the people on the left. Insofar as it concerns Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander, they are clearly not content to be only partially pleased by their politicians. They now seek perfectibility, of a kind. It might not be such a terrible idea for our side, as they descend into civil war, to lighten up a little and live to some extent according to what used to be the conservatives’ code.

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Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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