Let’s not parse the meaning of ‘tax increase’

We talked earlier about a fascinating exchange during last night’s “60 Minutes” on CBS, when Lesley Stahl noted that Reagan raised taxes and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s press secretary threw a fit. It appears my post wasn’t well received by some on the right.

To briefly recap, Stahl and Cantor were talking about the nature of political compromises, and the CBS correspondent noted that Reagan, Cantor’s hero, was willing to compromise and the Republican icon “raised taxes.” Cantor’s press secretary, off camera, interrupted the interview, yelling that Stahl was lying about Reagan’s record.

One far-right blogger today offered a unique spin on reality.

Stahl, was not being honest. When Ronald Reagan took office, the top individual tax rate was 70 percent and by 1986 it was down to only 28 percent. All Americans received at least a 30 percent tax rate cut. Democrats like to play with the numbers to pretend that Reagans [sic] tax increases equalled [sic] his tax cuts. Of course, this is absurd.

… Unfortunately, Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly continued to misrepresent Reagan’s record on tax cuts. It’s just soooo difficult for liberals to understand that tax cuts work. Sad.

While some left-vs-right disputes quickly fall into the realm of opinion and/or subjective analysis, the question here is surprisingly straightforward. Stahl said Reagan raised taxes; Cantor’s press secretary and this conservative blogger said Reagan didn’t raise taxes. One side is right; one side isn’t.

Fortunately, there’s no need to “play with the numbers” or “pretend” anything. Either Reagan signed tax increases into law or he didn’t. Even conservatives should be able to accept these basic terms.

And in this case, reality is crystal clear and the facts are indisputable: in Ronald Reagan’s first term, he signed off on a series of tax increases — even when unemployment was nearing 11% — and proceeded to raise taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office. The truth is, “no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people” as Reagan.

It’s true that Reagan cut taxes in 1981, but a year later, he also approved what is generally considered the largest tax increase — as a percentage of the economy — in modern American history.

And unfortunately for the right, the economy boomed shortly thereafter.

There’s nothing to debate here. Between 1982 and 1984, Reagan raised taxes four times, and as Bruce Bartlett — who worked for Reagan — has explained more than once, Reagan raised taxes 12 times during his eight years in office.

Now, if Cantor’s office and right-wing bloggers want to argue about the efficacy of Reagan’s tax policy, we can have a serious debate. If they want to discuss the impact of these tax cuts on the deficit — Reagan added $2 trillion to the debt in eight years, after promising to do the opposite as a candidate in 1980 — I’m certainly game. If they want to point out that Reagan only raised taxes reluctantly, as part of a compromise with congressional Democrats, they’d be on firm ground.

But instead Cantor’s office and right-wing bloggers want to contest the basics of reality. And that’s just silly.