Five myths about Ronald Reagan's legacy
By Will Bunch
Friday, February 4, 2011;
On Sunday, America celebrates the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan,
whose presidency is a touchstone for the modern conservative movement.
In 2011, it is virtually impossible for a major Republican politician
to succeed without citing Reagan as a role model. But much of what
today's voters think they know about the 40th president is more myth
than reality, misconceptions resulting from the passage of time or
from calculated attempts to rebuild or remake Reagan's legacy. So,
what are we getting wrong about the Gipper?
1. Reagan was one of our most popular presidents.
It's true that Reagan is popular more than two decades after leaving
office. A CNN/Opinion Research poll last month gave him the third-
highest approval rating among presidents of the past 50 years, behind
John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. But Reagan's average approval rating
during the eight years that he was in office was nothing spectacular -
52.8 percent, according to Gallup. That places the 40th president not
just behind Kennedy, Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower, but also Lyndon
Johnson and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom are talked up as
candidates for Mount Rushmore.
During his presidency, Reagan's popularity had high peaks - after the
attempt on his life in 1981, for example - and huge valleys. In 1982,
as the national unemployment rate spiked above 10 percent, Reagan's
approval rating fell to 35 percent. At the height of the Iran-Contra
scandal, nearly one-third of Americans wanted him to resign.
In the early 1990s, shortly after Reagan left office, several polls
found even the much-maligned Jimmy Carter to be more popular. Only
since Reagan's 1994 disclosure that he had Alzheimer's disease - along
with lobbying efforts by conservatives, such as Grover Norquist's
Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which pushed to rename Washington's
National Airport for the president - has his popularity steadily
2. Reagan was a tax-cutter.
Certainly, Reagan's boldest move as president was his 1981 tax cut, a
sweeping measure that slashed the marginal rate on the wealthiest
Americans from 70 percent to 50 percent. The legislation also included
smaller cuts in lower tax brackets, as well as big breaks for
corporations and the oil industry. But the following year, as the
economy was mired in recession and the federal deficit was spiraling
out of control, even groups such as the Business Roundtable lobbied
Reagan to raise taxes. And he did: The Tax Equity and Fiscal
Responsibility Act of 1982 was, at the time, the largest peacetime tax
increase in U.S. history.
Ultimately, Reagan signed measures that increased federal taxes every
year of his two-term presidency except the first and the last. These
included a higher gasoline levy, a 1986 tax reform deal that included
the largest corporate tax increase in American history, and a
substantial raise in payroll taxes in 1983 as part of a deal to keep
Social Security solvent. While wealthy Americans benefitted from
Reagan's tax policies, blue-collar Americans paid a higher percentage
of their income in taxes when Reagan left office than when he came in.
3. Reagan was a hawk.
Long before he was elected president, Reagan predicted that the Soviet
Union would collapse because of communism's inherent corruption and
inefficiency. His forecast proved accurate, but it is not clear that
his military buildup moved the process forward. Though Reagan expanded
the U.S. military and launched new weapons programs, his real
contributions to the end of the Cold War were his willingness to
negotiate arms reductions with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his
encouragement of Gorbachev as a domestic reformer. Indeed, a USA Today
poll taken four days after the fall of the Berlin Wall found that 43
percent of Americans credited Gorbachev, while only 14 percent cited
With the exception of the 1986 bombing of Libya, Reagan also
disappointed hawkish aides with his unwillingness to retaliate
militarily for terrorism in the Middle East. According to biographer
Lou Cannon, the president called the death of innocent civilians in
anti-terror operations "terrorism itself."
In 1987, Reagan aide Paul Bremer, later George W. Bush's point man in
Baghdad, even argued that terrorism suspects should be tried in
civilian courts. "A major element of our strategy has been to
delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are
- criminals - and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of
law, against them," Bremer said. In 1988, Reagan signed the United
Nations Convention Against Torture, which stated that torture could be
used under "no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever."
4. Reagan shrank the federal government.
Reagan famously declared at his 1981 inauguration that "in the present
crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is
the problem." This rhetorical flourish didn't stop the 40th president
from increasing the federal government's size by every possible
measure during his eight years in office.
Federal spending grew by an average of 2.5 percent a year, adjusted
for inflation, while Reagan was president. The national debt exploded,
increasing from about $700 billion to nearly $3 trillion. Many experts
believe that Reagan's massive deficits not only worsened the recession
of the early 1990s but doomed his successor, George H.W. Bush, to a
one-term presidency by forcing him to abandon his "no new taxes"
The number of federal employees grew from 2.8 million to 3 million
under Reagan, in large part because of his buildup at the Pentagon.
(It took the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton to
trim the employee rolls back to 2.7 million.) Reagan also abandoned a
campaign pledge to get rid of two Cabinet agencies - Energy and
Education - and added a new one, Veterans Affairs.
5. Reagan was a conservative culture warrior.
Reagan's contributions to the culture wars of the 1980s were largely
rhetorical and symbolic. Although he published a book in 1983 about
his staunch opposition to *** (overlooking the fact that he had
legalized *** in California as governor in the late 1960s), he
never sought a constitutional ban on ***. In fact, Reagan began
the odd practice of speaking to anti-*** rallies by phone instead
of in person - a custom continued by subsequent Republican presidents.
He also advocated prayer in public schools in speeches, but never in
In 1981, Reagan unintentionally did more than any other president to
prevent the Roe v. Wade *** ruling from being overturned when he
appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. O'Connor mostly
upheld *** rights during her 25 years as a justice.
No wonder that home-schooling advocate Michael Ferris was one of many
right-wing activists complaining about Reagan by the end of his
presidency, writing that his White House "offered us a bunch of
Will Bunch is the author of "Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing
Distortion of the Reagan Legacy." He is a senior writer for the
Philadelphia Daily News and a senior fellow with Media Matters for
I've quoted from Bunch befo, but what better time to do it again? And
this article doesn't even mention the fact that we cut and run from
Lebanon in '83....