|Page 2 of 2 <|
Five myths about Ronald Reagan's legacy
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.
Want to challenge everything you know? Visit the Five Myths archive.