February 7, 2011

Happy Birthday Mr. President

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It was hard to miss Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. Despite the occasion’s concurrence with the Superbowl, media outlets everywhere ran long form retrospectives analyzing the late former President’s political and cultural significance. Indeed, the attention given to his centennial greatly punctuated the degree to which Reagan — more so than other presidents of his era — still seems to be relevant today.When one considers the influence that Reagan continues to exert on the political landscape of our country, and the extent to which his image seems to resist being tarnished, the length of his absence from the public sphere seems rather surprising. To this day his name is invoked like a deity — the conservative policy solution to any conundrum is to first ask, “What would Reagan do?” and act accordingly. In the 2009 RNC chair debate, when asked who their favorite president was, the candidates unanimously responded “Ronald Reagan.” This year, they had to change the question to exempt him. Even Democrats feel obliged to recognize the greatness of Reagan: Obama famously acknowledged Reagan’s legacy while on the campaign trail in 2008.  Contemporary politicians have lionized the former president as the saving grace of the Republican Party — as the man responsible for reinvigorating the American spirit and restoring our country’s optimism. He is depicted as not only the champion of conservative values, but proof of the efficacy of supply-side economics (Reaganomics, anyone?). And, as icing on the proverbial cake, his great accomplishments were all won with the sort of affable charm that only a former movie star could possess.  Some of this narrative is accurate … but some of it isn’t. And as time takes us further and further away from the years of his administration, the myths and half-truths increasingly dominate our historical understanding of his legacy. There are, as it were, two Reagans: Reagan the Man and Reagan the Myth. It is extremely important that we are able to distinguish the two.It is true that Reagan drastically cut taxes: In 1981, he passed the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which cut the top marginal tax rates by 23 percent, decreased the capital gains tax and increased the exemption for the estate tax. This effectively shifted the tax burden away from top earners, and significantly reduced the amount of tax revenue the federal government collected each year. To attempt to balance the budget, Reagan proposed a number of serious cuts in non-security discretionary spending. However, the recession of 1982 exacerbated the inequities of his economic policy, resulting in a reduction in government revenues that couldn’t be balanced by the non-security cuts Reagan offered — cuts that were more than offset by massive increases in defense spending.To ameliorate the subsequent budget shortfalls, Reagan did what any pragmatist would do under the circumstances: He raised taxes. In fact, he raised taxes 11 times, effectively undoing a significant portion of the cuts he had previously passed. Even still, government spending increased, the deficits increased, and the national debt increased. Over the course of Reagan’s presidency, the United States moved from being the world’s largest creditor to the world’s largest debtor — not an achievement one would typically use to characterize an idol of fiscal responsibility.  The mischaracterization of Reagan’s economic policies is more than some innocuous trend. Were the construction of the “mythical Reagan” a misguided attempt to pay respects to a departed president, or a form of sentimental appreciation left to tributes and eulogies, it would be easier to write off. However, at the point where the manipulation of Reagan’s past is used as a rhetorical device to win the debates that determine our future, disregarding the shortcomings of his presidency is a clear threat to the creation of intelligent and effective policies. Put simply, we should be studying the mistakes of the past, not ignoring them.Unfortunately, conservatives have continued to use the distorted memory of Reagan’s legacy to bolster credibility for economic policies similar to those that so greatly mired his administration. Republicans rejected the repeal of the Bush tax cuts for high-income earners, despite the fact that such a move would have gone lengths to reduce the government deficit. Now, House Republicans have offered a budget that, much like Reagan’s, drastically cuts non-security discretionary spending, while utterly failing to address inflated levels of defense spending. Not only does such a proposal do little to meaningfully decrease the budget deficit, but it would significantly reduce important services and programs for the underprivileged in the process.In critiquing Reagan’s fiscal responsibility, I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing about his legacy to celebrate. By many economic indicators, his presidential tenure was successful. The economy grew, unemployment fell, interest rates decreased and inflation stabilized — though the degree to which this growth can be attributed to Reaganomics is hotly contested among economists. But especially at a time when the exploding deficit is of such great concern, it would behoove us to not blindly interpret Reaganomics as an economic panacea: Reagan himself called the subsequent growth in the deficit and the national debt the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency.Remembering Reagan requires analyzing and understanding the problems of his administration as much as the successes. By embracing Reagan the Myth, we forget Reagan the Man. I’m sure, on his 100th birthday, the former President would want to be remembered for who he was, not who we imagine him to have been.

David Murdter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter