How would Ronald Reagan have fared at last night’s GOP debate?


Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, left, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman during the GOP presidential primary debate Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/GETTY IMAGES)

But the funny thing is that if the actual Ronald Reagan had been on that stage defending his actual record, he would almost certainly have lost. In fact, he would have been destroyed.

The real Ronald Reagan was a conservative. There’s no doubt about that. But he was also a pragmatist. After cutting taxes dramatically in 1981 only to see deficits rise dramatically, Reagan began rapidly raising taxes: In 1982, he signed into law a tax increase that wiped out a third of his tax cut. In 1983, he agreed to a gasoline tax for infrastructure investment and, in 1984, another $50 billion tax hike. All in all, between 1982 and 1984, he raised taxes four times to help tamp down deficits.

Then there was the tax reform act of 1986, which raised corporate taxes. When William Niskanen, Reagan’s chief economic adviser, heard about the plan, he said, “Walter Mondale would have been proud.” And there were the Social Security reforms, which raised taxes on the Social Security benefits of high-income retirees. Oh, and under Reagan, the federal government’s payroll rose by 61,000. Under Clinton, payrolls fell by 370,000.

I want to be very clear: My point isn’t to suggest that Reagan was some closet liberal. This is still the president who signed one of the largest tax cuts in history. My point is to say Reagan was a conservative who was willing to compromise with reality. And that’s not something I heard a lot of on the stage last night.

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