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 climbed.

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 Reagan.

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" pledge.

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 abortion (overlooking the fact that he had legalized abortion in California as governor in the late 1960s), he never sought a constitutional ban on abortion. In fact, Reagan began the odd practice of speaking to anti-abortion 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 legislation.

In 1981, Reagan unintentionally did more than any other president to prevent the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling from being overturned when he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. O'Connor mostly upheld abortion 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 political trinkets."

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 America.

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