Would Ronald Reagan be welcome at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference?
(NOTE: THIS IS THE LONGEST POST IN THE FIVE-YEAR HISTORY OF THIS BLOG.)
The great irony of the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington later this week is two-fold:
First, the most popular Republican politician in the nation, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has not been invited, mainly because he’s perceived as too liberal (see HERE).
Second, and even more to the point, it’s doubtful that Ronald Reagan would be invited either, if he suddenly came back to life.
Reagan, as I’ve pointed out here on numerous occasions, would be considered a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by current GOP standards.
For you readers who have missed my many accounts of the real Reagan record, let’s review a few of the highlights:
Snarky pundit Slade Sohmer put it succinctly when he said Reagan’s tenure in the White House “would have to be considered by current conservative standards the worst presidency in American history.”
This president is a president every conservative Republican and Tea Party member should loathe.
This president nearly tripled the national debt. This president signed an immigration reform bill that granted blanket amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. This president talked with our enemies. This president raised taxes 11 times. This president, in fact, raised payroll taxes in order to pay for government-run health care. This president presided over double-digit unemployment. This president expanded the size of government and created new federal departments. This president cut and ran, withdrawing troops from hostile regions. This president put two justices on the Supreme Court that voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. This president closed tax loopholes to ensure “every corporation pay their fair share.” This president even advocated gun control on the op-ed pages of the, gasp, New York Times.
[C]ompared to the Palins, Limbaughs, Bachmanns, Tea Party leaders and Fox News commentators that make up the current ideological head of the conservative mega-beast, Reagan is at best a centrist. At worst — strictly looking at governance, not ideology — he governed far more liberally than the job-killing, tax-raising, enemy-appeasing, immigrant-loving Barack Obama.
Can you imagine the vitriol from Fox News if President Obama granted amnesty to illegal immigrants? Can you imagine the venom on Tea Party signs if President Obama raised taxes 11 times, called out corporations for tax loopholes and nearly tripled the national debt? Can you imagine the uproar from talk radio if President Obama actually wrote an op-ed advocating any restrictions on the sale of handguns? The right-wing echo chamber might implode upon itself in a fit of blind rage.
A less snarky, but no less accurate, account of the real Reagan record was offered eight years ago in an essay by Joshua Green in the Washington Monthly.
Here’s an excerpt:
It’s conservative lore that Reagan the icon cut taxes, while George H.W. Bush the renegade raised them. As Stockman [Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman] recalls, “No one was authorized to talk about tax increases on Ronald Reagan’s watch, no matter what kind of tax, no matter how justified it was.” Yet raising taxes is exactly what Reagan did. He did not always instigate those hikes or agree to them willingly–but he signed off on them. One year after his massive tax cut, Reagan agreed to a tax increase to reduce the deficit that restored fully one-third of the previous year’s reduction. (In a bizarre bit of self-deception, Reagan, who never came to terms with this episode of ideological apostasy, persuaded himself that the three-year, $100 billion tax hike–the largest since World War II–was actually “tax reform” that closed loopholes in his earlier cut and therefore didn’t count as raising taxes.)
Faced with looming deficits, Reagan raised taxes again in 1983 with a gasoline tax and once more in 1984, this time by $50 billion over three years, mainly through closing tax loopholes for business. Despite the fact that such increases were anathema to conservatives–and probably cost Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, reelection–Reagan raised taxes a grand total of four times just between 1982-84…
Reagan continued these “modest rollbacks” in his second term. The historic Tax Reform Act of 1986, though it achieved the supply side goal of lowering individual income tax rates, was a startlingly progressive reform. The plan imposed the largest corporate tax increase in history–an act utterly unimaginable for any conservative to support today. Just two years after declaring, “there is no justification” for taxing corporate income, Reagan raised corporate taxes by $120 billion over five years and closed corporate tax loopholes worth about $300 billion over that same period. In addition to broadening the tax base, the plan increased standard deductions and personal exemptions to the point that no family with an income below the poverty line would have to pay federal income tax. Even at the time, conservatives within Reagan’s administration were aghast. According to Wall Street Journal reporters Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray, whose book Showdown at Gucci Gulch chronicles the 1986 measure, “the conservative president’s support for an effort once considered the bastion of liberals carried tremendous symbolic significance.” When Reagan’s conservative acting chief economic adviser, William Niskanen, was apprised of the plan he replied, “Walter Mondale would have been proud.”
Another interesting chapter in the Reagan saga that today’s conservatives probably know nothing about is the curious tale of how a TV movie altered his world-view and led to changes in his foreign policy.
First, a little background: Among his political aides, Reagan was known as an anecdotal thinker, a man of Hollywood who preferred the narrative arc of movies or homespun stories to the arcane prose of briefing books and analytical reports. Accordingly, key officials in Reagan’s presidential administration routinely prepared visual presentations to fill him in on complicated issues.
As National Security Adviser William Clark once put it, “It was far more interesting [to Reagan] to see a movie on Indira Gandhi, covering her life, than sitting down with the usual tome the agency [the CIA] would produce. And that would spark questions from the president that I could fire back to the agency. I knew from Sacramento days [when Reagan was governor of California] that he liked celluloid. After all, it was his profession.”
Therefore, when ABC aired “The Day After,” a controversial movie about the effects of nuclear war on ordinary Americans in the city of Lawrence, Kan., Reagan was more receptive to the film’s emotional message than perhaps a more coldly analytical president would have been.
When “The Day After” was broadcast on Nov. 20, 1983, it attracted an audience of 100 million people, still a record for a TV movie, and a number that no doubt was boosted by massive advance publicity and controversy. Some conservative critics argued, even without benefit of having seen the film, that it was part of a sinister plot to disarm America in preparation for a takeover by the Soviet Union.
Ironically, by the time the right-wing campaign against the movie reached its fevered height in the weeks just before it aired, Reagan already had seen it in a private screening at the White House on Oct. 10 — and its impact on him was considerable, perhaps even profound.
Reagan wrote this about the movie in his diary: “It is powerfully done, all $7 million worth. It’s very effective and left me greatly depressed. Whether it will be of help to ‘anti-nukes’ or not, I can’t say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent & to see there is never a nuclear war.”
Author Will Bunch has written that “in the second half of his administration, Reagan may have worked harder than any president before or since in trying to convert his imaginative vision that he personally could save the world from a nuclear Armageddon into a reality.”
Three months after having seen “The Day After,” Reagan said in a nationally televised speech that “my dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.”
In July 1985, nine months after “The Day After” aired, a piece in the Washington Post was headlined: “What Happened to Reagan the Gunslinger? Now His Problem Is Convincing Skeptics He Isn’t a Pussycat.”
The story quoted conservative critics who were upset that Reagan seemed to have shied away from his 1981 pledge of “swift and effective retribution” in cases of terrorism.
The right-wing editorial page of the Wall Street Journal took to calling the president “Jimmy Reagan,” an uncomplimentary likening of him to his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
Looking back on Reagan’s presidency, it’s clear that he preferred the use of regional surrogates to the commitment of American combat forces in trouble spots. The only time he deployed a sizable U.S. contingent in a combat situation was in a relatively tiny skirmish in the Caribbean island nation of Grenada.
When Reagan got together with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to sign the the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, his conservative critics were furious:
The Boston Globe reported at the time:
Congressional conservatives and right-wing activists angrily criticized President Reagan yesterday for saying that opposition to an arms control treaty is based on a belief that war with the Soviet Union is “inevitable.” Some critics accused Reagan of abandoning the conservative movement. Reagan’s summit with Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, begins on Tuesday. The conservatives criticized the treaty to be signed by the two men…
And The New York Times observed:
Conservatives were stunned by these “dangerous illusions,” wrote Human Events, the conservative weekly, and ever since, a long list of prominent conservatives have been hurling brickbats at the President. But to what effect? “The consternation is keeping some conservatives from supporting the I.N.F. treaty,” a senior White House aide said. “They’re afraid that because of all his new rhetoric, there must be something wrong with the treaty.” But this official and many others interviewed say they believe the treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe is so well-liked by the American people that it will almost certainly be ratified, no matter how many conservatives inveigh against it. Asked how the conservatives’ anger could hurt the Republican Party or the Administration, a White House official who counts himself a new-right conservative thought a long moment. “It may make it more likely that our convention may be bitter,” he said at last.
Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation, also paused and finally said, “Whoever Reagan’s successor is will have a hard time mobilizing these people because Ronald Reagan walked away from them in the end.”
But, for his part, when Reagan signed the INF treaty, he sent a remarkable telegram to Nicholas Meyer, the director of “The Day After.”
The wire said: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”
That was four long years after Reagan had seen the film.
And then there’s this piece of a few years ago from Foreign Policy magazine in which Peter Beinart effectively challenged the popular image of Ronald Reagan as the ultimate hawk.
These days, virtually every time someone on the American right bashes President Barack Obama for kowtowing to dictators or failing to shout that we’re at war, they light a votive candle to Ronald Reagan. Former presidential candidate John McCain has called his own foreign-policy views “a 21st-century policy interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine.” His running mate Sarah Palin invokes the Gipper so frequently that some now speculate that she might launch her 2012 presidential bid in his hometown. As Dick Cheney put it a few years back, speaking for his fellow conservatives, “We are all Reaganites now.”
No, actually, you’re not. Today’s conservatives have conjured a mythic Reagan who never compromised with America’s enemies and never shrank from a fight. But the real Reagan did both those things, often. In fact, they were a big part of his success.
Sure, Reagan spent boatloads — some $2.8 trillion all told — on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But on the ultimate test of hawkdom — the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm’s way — Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war — the 1986 bombing of Libya — was even briefer. Compare that with George H.W. Bush, who launched two midsized ground operations, in Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992), and one large war in the Persian Gulf (1991). Or with Bill Clinton, who launched three air campaigns — in Bosnia (1995), Iraq (1998), and Kosovo (1999) — each of which dwarfed Reagan’s Libya bombing in duration and intensity. Do I even need to mention George W. Bush?
In fact, Reagan was terrified of war. He took office eager to vanquish Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and its rebel allies in El Salvador, both of which were backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. But at an early meeting, when Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that achieving this goal might require bombing Cuba, the suggestion “scared the [expletive] out of Ronald Reagan,” according to White House aide Michael Deaver. Haig was marginalized, then resigned, and Reagan never seriously considered sending U.S. troops south of the border, despite demands from conservative intellectuals like Norman Podhoretz and William F. Buckley. “Those [expletives] won’t be happy until we have 25,000 troops in Managua,” Reagan told chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein near the end of his presidency, “and I’m not going to do it.”
Another good bit of Reagan history stands in contrast to the phony controversy of a few years ago surrounding President Obama’s decision not to attend traditional Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery.
Obama haters everywhere jumped all over the decision, claiming that it showed the president’s lack of patriotism and falsely arguing that he was the first commander-in-chief to snub the doings at Arlington.
Most of these criticisms of Obama ignored the fact that he participated in Memorial Day ceremonies at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in a suburb of Chicago. The military veterans buried there were no less deserving of honor than those interred at Arlington, a parallel that seemed not to have occurred to the Obamaphobes.
Nor did Obama’s critics seem aware that past presidents have also skipped the Arlington ceremonies. George H. W. Bush never once attended those rites during his four years in office. Three of those four Memorial Day weekends he spent at his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Ronald Reagan participated in only four of the eight Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington while he was president. He missed two of them because of important meetings he was attending. The other two holidays found him at Camp David or at his ranch in California.
But there was another wreath-laying ceremony at a military cemetery that most of Reagan’s admirers either forgot or preferred not to mention, especially while they were preoccupied with impugning Obama’s patriotism.
The story goes back to 1985 when then-President Reagan made a visit to Germany to mark the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe.
At the request of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Reagan participated in memorial services at a military cemetery near the town of Bitburg. Among the thousands of graves of German soldiers at Kolmeshohe Cemetery are those of 49 members of the Waffen-SS, an elite armed wing of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. None of the graves are those of Americans.
Kohl had suggested the visit to Kolmeshohe as a symbol of the post-war reconciliation of the United States and Germany, and Reagan had readily acceded to the request, thereby touching off a huge uproar among Americans.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel implored Reagan not to visit the cemetery, and to find, instead, some other site to symbolize German-American friendship. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” said Wiesel.
Ninety-five Republican members of Congress objected to the Bitburg visit, as did countless other Americans. Former U.S. Army Sgt. Jim Hively mailed his World War II decorations, including a silver star and a bronze star, to Reagan in protest.
In response to the uproar, Kohl told The New York Times: “I will not give up the idea. If we don’t go to Bitburg, if we don’t do what we jointly planned, we will deeply offend the feelings of [my] people.”
The hubbub had the opposite effect of what had been intended. The Bitburg controversy strained German-American relations. White House officials said their German counterparts had assured them that nothing in the cemetery visit would embarrass Reagan. For their part, Chancellery officials said the way Reagan’s people handled the controversy “was not very intelligent.”
Reagan defended himself by saying:
“These [SS troops] were the villains, as we know, that conducted the persecutions and all. But there are 2,000 graves there, and most of those, the average age is about 18. I think that there’s nothing wrong with visiting that cemetery where those young men are victims of Nazism also, even though they were fighting in the German uniform, drafted into service to carry out the hateful wishes of the Nazis. They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.”
The president’s statement, with its equating of Nazi soldiers with Holocaust victims, only heightened the controversy. Even Reagan’s wife Nancy was said to be opposed to the cemetery visit.
Robert McFarlane, an aide to the president, later said this: “Once Reagan learned that Kohl would really be badly damaged by a withdrawal, he said ‘We can’t do that; I owe him.’”
Reagan’s visit to the cemetery lasted only eight minutes, during which time he laid a wreath at a wall of remembrance and stood at attention as a short trumpet salute was sounded.
The fuss over Bitburg gradually faded and today is only barely remembered, if at all, by most Americans.
But there should be no doubt that if Barack Obama had done anything like what Ronald Reagan did on that day in May 1985, his detractors would have gone ballistic.
Further reasons why Reagan wouldn’t likely be invited to this year’s CPAC doings relate to his record as a governor before he became president.
Steve Benen summed it up thusly a few years ago:
In California, Reagan increased spending, raised taxes, helped create the nation’s first state-based emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, and expanded the nation’s largest state-based Medicaid program (socialized medicine).
And finally, there was another beloved Republican president who wouldn’t be invited to CPAC:
Dwight David Eisenhower, who was president through most of the 1950s, was a champion of what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He resisted calls from right-wingers for repeal of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and government regulations. He advocated government efforts to assist workers who had lost their jobs. He favored a helping hand from government for senior citizens. He said he wanted to lead America “down the middle of the road between the unfettered power of concentrated wealth . . . and the unbridled power of statism or partisan interests.”
Eisenhower endorsed an expansion of Social Security and an increase in the minimum wage. He signed legislation creating the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and supported government construction of low-income housing. He also oversaw creation of the gigantic public-works project that bears his name: the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.
In short, most of what Ike stood for would be anathema to the extremists who now control his party.