USA Today: Conservatives Have Strayed From the Reagan Model

Fiscal Responsibility

There’s a USA Today editorial about how far House Republicans have strayed from their conservative hero, President Ronald Reagan, which begs the question:

Rather than cling to the Republican Default Act that has no chance of passing the Senate, House Republicans should take a page from President Reagan’s playbook and work with Democrats on a long-term, balanced agreement to pay our bills, reduce the deficit and bring certainty to our economy. Here’s the full editorial for your enjoyment:

USA Today

Our view: Conservatives have strayed from the Reagan model

As Washington continues wrangling over plans to raise the federal debt limit and cut long-term deficits, a fair question for Republicans to ask is: What would Ronald Reagan do?

The answer, based on a fair-minded reading of Reagan's record as president, is this: He would raise the debt ceiling. He would agree to tax increases as part of a balanced package to rein in deficits. And all this would be accomplished by compromising with the Democrats after tough but civil negotiations.

None of this is to suggest that Reagan wasn't a stalwart conservative. He surely was. On balance, he lowered taxes while showing that free enterprise was a powerful engine of job growth and social progress.

But it does suggest how far today's conservatives have strayed from the Reagan model, even as they claim to revere Reagan the man. He made numerous concessions, both to Democrats and to reality, because he realized that by giving a little he could gain a lot. That's generally how politics is supposed to work.

In contrast, for too many in today's Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party wing, politics is all about drawing lines in the sand and trying to win style points for purity. The Tea Partiers have the right goal — getting government to live within its means — but they seem to lack Reagan's awareness that you can't do everything at once.

It's worth recalling that by September of 1987, Reagan had already fought for and won 17 debt ceiling increases during his presidency. Many were stopgap measures approved despite childish posturing from members of both parties.

Advocating an 18th increase to get him through the rest of his presidency, Reagan warned bluntly against brinksmanship that "threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits."

Sound familiar?

It's also worth recalling that five years earlier, in September of 1982, the economy was struggling, even more so than today. Unemployment was a staggering 10.1%. The Dow Jones average was under 1,000.

So what did Reagan — concerned about a ballooning budget deficit, driven by the weak economy and a massive tax cut he had signed into law the previous year — do? He agreed to raise taxes. A lot. That's right; in the middle of a deep recession Reagan signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which hiked taxes by $150 billion per year in today's dollars.

Two years later, in the middle of an election year, he signed his second largest tax increase, the aptly named Deficit Reduction Act of 1984. In between the two came his third largest tax hike, an increase in the payroll tax that was part of a balanced plan to stabilize Social Security. In all, there were 11 Reagan tax hikes.

Today — the era of Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge and an ideology that holds there is never a good time to raise taxes — that would be considered heresy. As would Reagan's willingness to compromise with members of the other party.

Reagan dealt with a Democratic House majority for his entire eight years. He maintained good relations with then-Speaker Tip O'Neill. Sometimes Reagan worked with O'Neill, as in the plan to rescue Social Security. And sometimes he worked around him, putting together a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. But he avoided shrill invective. Reagan was an optimist who would be mystified by the unremittingly negative tone of many Republicans these days.

And what about the "grand bargain" on the deficit that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were trying to negotiate? The Reagan who led this nation, as opposed to the one of myth many acolytes have created, would have seen a debt reduction plan in the range of $4 trillion over 10 years, accomplished mostly by spending cuts, as a huge win. He would have signed it in a New York minute.