Saturday, February 2, 2008

Misremembering Reagan

Republicans can't even parse their own messiah truthfully. In the wake of the McCain-Romney-CNN-Reagan-Lovefest debate, Slate's Michael Kinsley reminds us the truth behind the propped up "legend":

...the biggest fairy tale about Reagan is the most central one: about taxes and spending. It is one thing to sit in a North Vietnamese prison in the early 1970s, dreaming of a California governor who one day will balance the federal budget. It is another to imagine that it actually happened. When Reagan took office in 1981, federal receipts (taxes) were $517 billion and outlays (spending) were $591 billion, for a deficit of $73 billion. When he left office in 1989, taxes were $999 billion and spending was $1.14 trillion, for a deficit of $153 billion. As a share of the economy (the fairest measure), Reagan did cut taxes, from 19.6 percent to 18.4 percent, and he cut spending from 22.2 percent to 21.2 percent, increasing the deficit from 2.6 percent to 2.8 percent. The deficit went as high as an incredible 5 percent of GDP during Reagan's term. As a result, the national debt soared by almost two-thirds. You can fiddle with these numbers—assuming that it takes another year or two for a president's policies to take effect, or taking defense costs out of your calculation, and the basic result is the same or worse. Whatever, these numbers hardly constitute a "revolution."

John McCain's stagy self-flagellation, on behalf of all Republicans, for betraying the Reagan Revolution when they controlled Congress and the White House at the beginning of this decade, is entirely misplaced. In fact, George W. Bush and the Republican Congress did precisely what Reagan did: They cut taxes, mainly on the well-to-do, but they barely touched spending. If the Republicans are looking around for an icon to worship, they might consider Bill Clinton. He cut spending from 21.4 percent of GDP to 18.5 percent. That's three times as much as Reagan did. True, he raised taxes from 17.6 percent to 19.8 percent, but that's still a smaller chunk than the government was claiming when Reagan left office. And, of course, he left us with an annual surplus that threatened to eliminate the national debt.

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