What Palin (and Other GOP Leaders) Doesn't Get About Ronald Reagan

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Earlier this month, the media world suspended its cynicism to celebrate -- and not just to recognize -- the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth. Republican leaders went further: Newt Gingrich said the former president was "a beacon of light whose faith in the American people will continue to inspire." Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said that Reagan's "memory reminds us of the promise America carries for each of its citizens." And Sarah Palin said that "President Reagan held up a mirror to the American soul to remind us of our exceptionalism."

Reagan is venerated for good reason -- as President Obama put it, he "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." More than any other figure, Reagan set a tone that continues to shape national politics. "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem" -- the defining line of Reagan's first inaugural -- remains the rallying cry for two generations of conservative voters and politicians.

But here's what the hagiographies ignore: Reagan's record -- his real record -- would repel most of the social and economic conservatives who now deify him.

Palin said that "President Reagan would be so proud of the conservative movement today." But it is awfully hard to imagine today's conservative movement even including someone like Reagan.

Today's conservative movement, reanimated by the tea party, has fought to defeat prominent Republicans for being insufficiently conservative. Endorsed by Palin, many of this year's GOP nominees -- in California, Delaware, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere -- fell short in statewide general elections more moderate Republicans might have won. As one conservative House committee chairman complained, "Sarah Palin cost us control of the Senate." The former Alaska governor stood by her picks, saying she supports "pro-life, pro-Second Amendment ... conservatives who have never voted for a tax increase."

But those criteria would mean rejecting Reagan.

As governor of California, Reagan spoke out against "welfare bums" and big government, attacked the Democratic legislature, and sent National Guard troops to crack down on Berkeley protesters -- just as Republicans remember. But he also signed the law that legalized abortion in California, signed the law that allowed no-fault divorce for the first time, and championed and approved the largest tax increase in state history (an increase that represented 30 percent of the state general fund). He raised sales taxes, corporate taxes, inheritance taxes, liquor taxes, cigarette taxes, and the top income tax rate. Under Governor Reagan, the California Air Resources Board (so-called "command and control" environmental regulation) was founded, and real spending increased almost 13 percent -- more than under his Democratic successor, Jerry Brown. Reagan even signed the Mulford Act, "prohibiting the carrying of firearms on one's person or in a vehicle, in any public place or on any public street."

As president, Reagan spoke out against "the Evil Empire" and the air traffic controllers, attacked the Democratic Congress, and cut taxes dramatically in 1981 -- just as Republicans remember. But Reagan also raised taxes at least seven times. In 1982 alone, he raised taxes twice, including the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. He raised payroll taxes, gas taxes, and corporate taxes. In fact, Reagan raised taxes every year he was president but the first and the last. He also raised spending by nearly a quarter in real terms -- more than double the increase under President Clinton. He added a new Cabinet department (Veterans' Affairs). In all, Reagan grew the federal civilian workforce by about 200,000; Clinton cut it by about 200,000. The national debt skyrocketed from $700 billion to nearly $3 trillion. And, as Michael Kinsley has written, "[the Democratic] Congress did not force Reagan to spend all this money. His total budget requests exceeded the amounts Congress appropriated."

On defense, yes, Reagan grew the Pentagon's budget, but he also negotiated sweeping arms control deals with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. He even signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture that banned harsh interrogation techniques even under "exceptional circumstances." (Today's GOP leaders attack the UN and oppose relatively modest arms control treaties like New START.)

On social issues, Reagan's record was even less conservative. Reagan spoke about prayer in schools and ending abortion rights -- but did little about either. He appointed the pro-choice Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. He even granted amnesty -- yes, amnesty -- to nearly three million illegal immigrants.

In a 1984 campaign debate, Reagan said, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally."

Here's a thought: some reporter should tell Palin a Democrat had just spoken those words.

Somehow it seems doubtful her response would be, "How Reaganesque."

Image credit: Ronald Reagan speaking in 1979. (AP Photo)

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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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