When the right people pick the wrong hero

WHEN THE RIGHT PEOPLE PICK THE WRONG HERO…. There was a fascinating moment on Friday’s edition of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. Mike Stark called in and asked why conservatives adore Ronald Reagan’s legacy, given the less-than-conservative policies the former president embraced in office, including several tax increases.

Limbaugh refused to answer, instead asking, “Where did you get this silly notion that Reagan raised taxes?”

As Reagan’s 100th birthday puts the 40th president back in the spotlight today, there’s plenty of coverage about his life, his two terms, and his legacy. Naturally, then, there’s plenty of angles to consider, including the fact that Reagan wasn’t a very good president, though his reputation has clearly benefited from an aggressive, well-financed, highly-motivated public-relations campaign.

But the angle that strikes me as most relevant today is the fact that today’s conservatives have chosen a hero they don’t really understand, and would actually find pretty offensive if they stopped to think about it. Perhaps the most insightful thing Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has ever said is when he noted last year that Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”

Walter Shapiro had a good item the other day highlighting Reagan’s record on taxes, in particular, which he said has been “airbrushed by 21st century conservatives.”

Even though Reagan persuaded a Democratic Congress to approve his massive 1981 rate reductions, the Gipper reversed field in 1982 to staunch the deficit and agreed to a tax increase (equal to about one-third of the original cuts). That single act of tax realism would have prompted today’s tea party movement to denounce Reagan as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and to threaten to find a real conservative to challenge him in the GOP primaries.

That was nothing compared to the tax-code apostasy of Reagan’s second term. He championed, and in 1986 signed into law, a sweeping bipartisan tax reform bill that (warning: be sure you are sitting down before reading further) raised capital gains taxes. In one of the great progressive reforms of the last half century, Reagan eliminated tax loopholes and special preferences like capital gains in exchange for lowering individual tax brackets. At the core of Reagan’s tax reform triumph was the liberal principle that unearned income (stock market swag) should be treated the same ways as an autoworker’s wages.

If anything, this is understating the case. In his first term, Reagan raised taxes when unemployment was nearing 11% — imagine trying this today — and proceeded to raise taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office. It’s a fact that’s terribly inconvenient on a day like today, but “no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people” as Reagan.

Of course, it’s not just taxes. Given the totality of Reagan’s record, it’s amazing the Tea Party wing of the Republican base doesn’t consider him a villain who betrayed everything they cherish.

I’m reminded of something Rachel Maddow said last year:

“He signed a bill that gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants. He grew the size of the federal government and the budget, added a whole new cabinet level agency and added tens of thousands of government workers to the federal payroll.

“He tripled the deficit. He bailed out and expanded social security with a big fat tax increase. He raised corporate taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars. He raised taxes on gasoline.

“He, in fact, signed into law the largest tax increase in history. He supported federal handgun controls. He called for a world without nuclear weapons.

“He was Ronald Reagan.”

I’d also note that as governor, Reagan increased spending, raised taxes, helped create the nation’s first state-based emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, and expanded the nation’s largest state-based Medicaid program (socialized medicine).

As president, Reagan also met with our most hated enemy without preconditions, and illegally funneled arms to Iran.

During his first two years, conservatives resented Reagan and openly explored challenging him in the 1984 primary. In his second term, the right condemned his talks with the Soviets, and blasted his tax increases. There’s a reason the Washington Monthly generated quite a bit of interest with our 2003 cover story on Reagan’s “liberal legacy.”

Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today”? Reagan would have a hard time not getting laughed off the Republican stage today.

But this isn’t what we’re supposed to think. GOP activists have imbued Reagan with almost supernatural powers, and the Republican National Committee has quite literally referred to him as Ronaldus Magnus. Most of the time, the gushing, borderline-religious-like love for the former president in conservative circles falls somewhere between sycophantic and nauseating.

We can debate why this has happened, but I’m of the opinion that it’s the result of a scarcity of Republican heroes. Over the last 146 years, exactly how many GOP presidents do contemporary Republican activists actually like? There’s Reagan, and there’s no one else.

Dems have a more diversified list, ranging from Jefferson to Jackson, Roosevelt to Truman, JFK to Clinton, and maybe someday, Obama.

Reagan, conversely, gets all the love, because his party isn’t proud of anyone else except Lincoln. That makes the adulation understandable, but it doesn’t give it value.