Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reagan Revisionism

February 6 was not just “Super Bowl Sunday.” It was also “Ronald Reagan Day,” as declared by Republican lawmakers—including Maine’s Gov. Paul LePage—in honor of what would have been the late president’s 100th birthday.

Besides the incongruity of celebrating the unofficial Ronald Reagan Day on a Sunday (if Congress is to make this an actual holiday, as some conservatives have proposed, let’s at least get a three-day weekend out of it), there are, in fact, a number of reasons to reflect on the legacy of the 40th president—though none of them good ones.

Since Reagan’s death, conservatives (and some Democrats, Obama included) have tripped over themselves to reclaim the “Gipper’s” mantle as representative of true Republican values. And in doing so, they have turned Reagan into a mythical icon that bears little resemblance to the man who actually occupied the White House during the 1980s.

Contemporary Republicans credit Reagan with balancing the federal budget, single-handedly ending the Cold War, maintaining lower taxes, and shrinking the size of the federal government.

But those of us who inhabit what a Bush staffer once infamously referred to as the, “reality-based community,” remember a very different President Ronald Reagan. In fact, in many cases, Reagan actually did the reverse of what many in the media credit him with.

According to Think Progress’ Alex Seitz-Wald, Reagan frequently raised taxes (11 times in total), tripled the size of the federal deficit, oversaw a massive expansion of government, and enacted tax-cuts that caused unemployment to soar to almost 11 percent. (Hmmm… Why does that last one sound so familiar…?)

“…Income inequality exploded,” Seitz-Wald writes of the Reagan tax-cut. “Despite the myth that Reagan presided over an era of unmatched economic boom for all Americans, Reagan disproportionately taxed the poor and middle-class, but the economic growth of the 1980s did little to help them.” Indeed, that gap has only grown wider in the last twenty years.

Author and journalist William Kleinknecht echoes similar sentiments of “The Great Communicator.” His book, The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America chronicles how Reagan’s emphasis on deregulation and free-market purism stripped the country of jobs, blue-collar workers of basic worker protections, and were chiefly responsible for the current economic meltdown.

“It is remarkable that Reagan took none of the blame for the corporate scandals that marred the last years of the American century and ushered in the millennium,” Kleinknecht observes, “since they were largely of his making.”

“Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no savings-and-loan bailout, no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives. Nor would there have been an Enron, or a subprime mortgage crisis which sent shockwaves through the global financial system and placed the country on the brink of its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”

And that’s just on the domestic front. There was also that whole business of Iran-Contra—a highly unconstitutional act that should have gotten Reagan impeached, though you are unlikely to hear that assessment from the Reagan-worshipping, “Constitutionalists” in the Tea Party.

As for the claim—perhaps the Gipper’s best known “accomplishment”—that Reagan ended the Cold War, as Will Bunch argues in Tear Down this Myth, the Soviet Union likely would have fallen due to internal strife, regardless of the White House occupant at the time.

Reagan’s real contribution to the Cold War was ensuring the Soviets lost their bid to takeover Afghanistan by secretly funneling money, arms and training to the Islamist mujahidin fighters. One of the most prominent mujahidin commanders we backed was—wait for it!—Osama bin Laden. As Seitz-Wald writes, “…U.S. policy toward Pakistan remains strained because of the intelligence services’ close relation to these fighters. In fact, Reagan’s decision to continue the proxy war after the Soviets were willing to retreat played a direct role in Bin Laden’s ascendancy.”

Finally, despite the hyperbolic praise heaped upon Reagan, it is worth remembering how deeply unpopular he was while in office. According to a 2004 report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), Reagan left the White House with a 63 percent approval rating, and averaged a 52 percent approval rating for his two terms. (It dropped to 46 percent during Iran-Contra, the report notes.) Indeed, no other modern president, save for George W. Bush, was as divisive as Ronald Reagan.

Clearly, the media suffers from a bit of selective memory when it comes to Reagan’s true legacy. Perhaps, like the president himself, too many journalists and pundits are experiencing a bit of dementia.

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