What Would Reagan Do?

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Photo: Dirck Halstead/Getty Images and Universal Studios

Yesterday, Jeb Bush suggested that Ronald Reagan would be too moderate (or willing to compromise) to win his party’s nomination, thus setting off another round of Washington’s favorite dorm-room debate, What Would Reagan Do? Norm Ornstein argues in the New York Times that Reagan was, indeed, too conciliatory for today’s GOP. Grover Norquist insists that Reagan was indeed an anti-tax absolutist.

On the tax question, Ornstein is obviously right and Norquist obviously wrong. Reagan is a mythological figure for conservatives, his memory used to drill a series of simple lessons — always stand firm, never raise taxes — that Reagan himself did not follow. Reagan did pass a huge tax cut in 1981, but he (or his advisers — one never really knew how well the Gipper was clued in to his own policies) came to regret the size of the deficit. They acceded to a series of large tax hikes, and also to a tax reform that ended the capital gains tax break and made the tax code more progressive. Reagan remained rhetorically committed to anti-tax absolutism, but he was actually willing to bend those principles quite a bit.

Norquist tries to rebut this by insisting that Reagan’s compromises don’t count because he didn’t like them:

Mr. Reagan signed a deal in 1982 that included new taxes because — lacking sufficient conservative allies in Congress — he had no practical alternative, Mr. Norquist said. In addition, Mr. Reagan later came to believe the budget deal he signed with Democrats in 1982 was a big mistake, Mr. Norquist noted.

But Reagan did have a practical alternative. He could have let the deficit stay extremely high! That’s what George W. Bush did when his tax cuts produced huge deficits. Reagan changed course because he considered extremely low tax revenues a problem. That’s one way Reagan differed from contemporary Republicans.

If you try to really think about how the imaginary time-traveling Reagan would behave, though, you quickly run into the same kinds of paradoxes that arise with any time-traveling experiment. Ronald Reagan believed the passage of Medicare would inevitably amount to the total destruction of freedom in America, Martin Luther King had his assassination coming because he undermined the rule of law, and abortion should be legal.

Naturally, he believed all those things in the sixties, not as president. By the time Reagan was president, conservatives had grown much more conservative on abortion and much less conservative on civil rights and Medicare.

If Mitt Romney retired to a remote desert island after the 2008 election and never again communicated with the outside world, then we’d all be saying that Romney would find his party’s jihad against Obamacare absurd. But here is Romney leading the charge to repeal a plan based on his handiwork and that he himself advocated as a national model four years ago. And if Obamacare survives the right-wing efforts to overturn it in the courts and Congress, a couple decades from now conservative rhetoric about how it destroys freedom will be just as quaint as Reagan’s hysteria against Medicare.

Presidents tend to represent the beliefs of their parties — when the parties evolve, the politicians evolve alongside them. Anti-tax absolutism was still new in the early eighties, and it was weak enough that Reagan would cast it aside when the facts justified doing so. If Reagan was president now, he would never do that. At the same time, the basic fact remains that, over the last few decades, the Republican Party has grown way more extreme on taxes.