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The Reagan Myth

The Gipper's record is being distorted to make President Bush look bad.


Monday, July 17, 2006 12:01 a.m.

I was recently asked about President Bush's chances of a political resurgence. Might Mr. Bush be able to recover as strongly as President Reagan did from a slump in his second term in the 1980s? My response was, Reagan recovery? What Reagan recovery?

Though he continued his ultimately successful fight to win the Cold War, Reagan achieved nothing new--practically nothing--after the Iran-contra scandal broke in 1986. His presidency was crippled. The Republicans had lost the Senate. His nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 was defeated, partly because of feeble White House support. His veto of a transportation bill was overridden.

The question was innocent enough, but it reflected a broader pattern of misrepresentation of Ronald Reagan's record in the White House that has become not only widespread but widely accepted. Reagan was, I believe, one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century, but many of the things that both liberals and conservatives now credit to his presidency simply never were. And there's a political purpose behind this Reagan revisionism. He is cited mostly to criticize Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans for falling short of some mythical Reagan standard.

Liberals pretend the Reagan years--in contrast to the Bush years--were a golden idyll of collaboration between congressional Democrats and a not-so-conservative president. When Reagan died in 2004, John Kerry recalled having admired his political skills and liked him personally. "I had quite a few meetings with him," Mr. Kerry told reporters. "I met with Reagan a lot more than I've met with this president."

Of course, that wasn't Mr. Kerry's take on Reagan during his presidency: In 1988, he condemned the "moral darkness of the Reagan-Bush administration." A chief complaint of liberals and the media in those days was that Mr. Reagan was a "detached" president, not one easily accessible to Democratic members of Congress or anyone outside his inner circle of aides. But Reagan had to talk to Democrats on occasion since they controlled at least half of Congress. Mr. Bush rarely consults them for the simple reason that Republicans run all of Capitol Hill; so he talks frequently with Republican congressional leaders.

Liberals today talk about Reagan as if the hallmark of his administration was a lack of partisanship--again in contrast with Mr. Bush. Mr. Kerry noted in 2004 that Mr. Reagan "taught us that there is a big difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship." Mr. Bush, naturally, is the bitter partisan. Of course that's what liberals then thought of Reagan--and they were partially right: While never bitter, Reagan was in fact a partisan Republican.

On foreign policy, some liberals peddle the notion that Reagan wasn't the hardliner he might have seemed. Bill Keller, the executive editor of the New York Times, has argued that Reagan, having won the Cold War, was ready to rely on international organizations to police the world. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is impugned as the enemy of the U.N. and multilateralism.

Reagan a moderate in foreign affairs? It strains credulity to imagine the president--who supported wars of national liberation in Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan, who bombed Libya to punish Gadhafi, who defiantly installed Pershing missiles in Europe, who invaded Grenada--as anything but a hardliner. He was a hawk for whom defeating the Soviet Union was the essential priority.

It's on foreign policy that liberals and conservatives find common cause. Patrick Buchanan, rehearsing the pieties of the political left, argues that Mr. Bush has turned the world against America. The "endless bellicosity" of Mr. Bush and his neoconservative advisers, he recently argued, "has produced nothing but ill will against us. This was surely not the way of the tough but gracious and genial Ronald Reagan."

Of all people, Mr. Buchanan ought to know better, having served as Reagan's communications director from 1984 to 1986. Reagan generated massive antiwar and anti-American demonstrations around the world, far larger and more numerous protests than those Mr. Bush has occasioned. He famously denounced the Soviet "evil empire" headed for "the ash-heap of history." He was treated by the press as a cowboy warmonger, just as Mr. Bush has been. Ill will? Reagan produced plenty--all in a noble cause.

Conservatives attack Mr. Bush most vehemently on excessive government spending, and there they have a point. He could have been more frugal, despite the exigent circumstances, especially in his first term. But it's also on the spending issue that the Reagan myth--Reagan as the relentless swashbuckler against spending--is most pronounced. He won an estimated $35 billion in spending cuts in 1981, his first year in office. After that, spending soared, so much so that his budget director David Stockman, who found himself on the losing end of spending arguments, wrote a White House memoir with the subtitle, "Why the Reagan Revolution Failed."

With Reagan in the White House, spending reached 23.5% of GDP in 1984, the peak year of the military buildup. Under Mr. Bush, the top spending year is 2005 at 20.1% of GDP, though it is expected to rise as high as 20.7% this year, driven upward by Iraq and hurricane relief.

Mr. Reagan was a small government conservative, but he found it impossible to govern that way. He made tradeoffs. He gave up the fight to curb domestic spending in exchange for congressional approval of increased defense spending. He cut taxes deeply but signed three smaller tax hikes. Rather than try to reform Social Security, he agreed to increase payroll taxes.

The myth would have it that Reagan was tireless in shrinking the size of government, a weak partisan always ready to deal with Democrats, and not the hardliner we thought he was. The opposite is true. Reagan compromised, as even the most conservative politicians often do, to save his political strength for what mattered most--defeating the Soviet empire and keeping taxes low. Today, the latter still remains imperative, and the former has been superseded by a faceless death cult. We can't understand George Bush if we distort the real Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard and author of "Rebel in Chief" (Crown Forum, 2006).


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