The celebration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday doesn’t come until early March, but the devotions have been going on for years. For conservatives, Reagan is the lodestar, the genial demigod to whom all must avow fealty. In a Time cover story, Michael Scherer and Michael Duffy suggest that Obama considers Reagan “The Role Model.” Richard Norton Smith, writing about the “Reagan Revelation,” attributes Obama’s uptick in the polls because he’s been “acting positively Reaganesque,” reaching out to the business community, scoring bipartisan victories on tax cuts, delivering a sermon in Tucson that Smith calls “worthy of the Great Communicator at his most consoling.”
This is more than a bit ridiculous. (Who knew that Bill Daley, most recently JP Morgan’s lead lobbyist,” and GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, who has shipped more jobs abroad than most CEOs, had such sway on public opinion?). But it will get much worse, as conservatives weigh in to suggest Reagan revived America, brought us together, dispatched communism with a speech and a lot of military spending, etc.
Before we go too far down this road, it is worth a reality check. Reagan, no doubt, was a transformational president. His presidency marked the beginning of 30 years of conservative domination of our politics, although Rick Perlstein argues persuasively that Nixonland tilled the soil of racial and cultural division that Reagan cultivated. (Not by accident did Reagan open his campaign in the unreachable Philadelphia, Mississippi, previously known only as the site of the infamous murders of civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, where he announced his belief in “state’s rights”).
But take a good look at the conservative mantra that Reagan championed: less spending, low taxes, deregulation, free trade, strong military, family values. On all of these, the Gipper and conservatives got it wrong.
Less spending was perverted, since Reagan doubled the military budget in peacetime (up 50 percent in real terms). He somehow didn’t believe military spending added to deficits. (Reagan never introduced a balanced budget in his presidency.) Less spending turned out to mean slash programs that support the weak and the vulnerable. Reagan opened the campaign against government domestic spending that leaves us with an aged infrastructure that is dangerous to our health, schools that put children at risk, and record numbers struggling simply to feed their families. Poverty levels began rising under Reagan and have remained high, other than in the couple years of the Clinton presidency when full employment began to lift all boats.
Low taxes turned into successive tax cuts for the rich. Reagan believed in the voodoo of the Laffer Curve, that cutting top-end taxes would generate more revenue. One thing it generated was inequality. The great leveling that marked the post-Cold War years came to an end under Reagan, as the wealthiest Americans began capturing ever greater portions of the nation’s income. Today, the wealthiest 1 percent captures about 23 percent of the income, and control more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of Americans, and captured a staggering two-thirds of the rewards of growth in the last “recovery” form 2002-2007. This is the true Reagan legacy.
Free trade was the label affixed to a trade policy defined by and for multinational companies and banks. Under Reagan, America began shipping jobs rather than goods abroad. When Reagan fired the PATCO strikers, he signaled to corporate America that it was open season on unions. The combination was lethal for America’s manufacturing base — and for the family wage that was the signature of America’s broad middle class.
Deregulation gutted consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace safety and the right to organize under Reagan. It led to many scandals that made his administration one of the most corrupt in history, with a record 138 officials investigated, indicted or convicted. But the biggest change was deregulation of banking, which led to successive financial wildings and crashes that have cost taxpayers literally trillions. The first was the Savings and Loan debacle that followed on Reagan’s reforms that empowered banksters to gamble with other people’s money, with their losses guaranteed by the federal government.
Strong military entailed wasting literally hundreds of billions of dollars on weapons we did not need and could not use, from reviving battleships to building new generations of missiles. The most notable folly was Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy, which continues to waste tens of billions each year, throwing money into a program that does not work against a threat that does not exist. It is heresy for any Republican to question this folly (Rand Paul, the world awaits). The military remains the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the nation’s budget — yet even Barack Obama promises a freeze to domestic discretionary spending, leaving out the military, even though we’re spending about as much as the rest of the world combined.
Combined with the strong military was a lawless devotion to the national security state, the belief captured by Nixon, that in the area of national security, when the president does it, it is legal. This doctrine of presidential license found expression under Reagan most notably in the Iran-Contra scandals, where the president created a secret fund and a secret army in direct violation of the laws of the land. He avoided accountability by professing ignorance and confusion.
Family values, the Republican reach to the evangelical right, were cynically used to divide Americans, not unite them, targeting blacks, women (or feminazis in Rush Limbaugh’s lingo), and gays. Reagan, steeped in the ways of Hollywood, was the utter cynic. He was the only divorced man to occupy the White House, was at best a distant parent, and generally avoided going to church. While he pandered to the Christian right, he was never very serious about pursuing their agenda.
Today, America is more unequal, its middle class is weaker, its manufacturing sector is hollowed out, its bloated military, laden with baroque weaponry, can start wars but not win them. Under the banner of conservatism, predatory corporate interests — Big Oil, Big Pharma, Wall Street, global corporations, agribusiness — have fleeced taxpayers while feathering the nests of the few.
So let’s celebrate Ronald Reagan’s style. He was a great communicator, an aw shucks American original, a genial optimist. He was a transformational president who launched America on a misguided, 30-year experiment with market fundamentalism. But let’s not forget the reality. His race bait politics of division were inherited from the dark side of Nixon. And his conservatism has cost this country dearly.