Empire Strikes First: I Miss Ronald Reagan
With President Obama entering his stride for the second term, he has a decision to make: is he going to continue trying to compromise with the Republican Congress that will not budge on the smallest of issues, or will he plow forward with his own agenda, slashing and burning a progressive legacy? Of course, even if he had free rein, he probably would not put forth anything left of center. And the reality is that at least until January 2015, he is in a position where nothing will get done without at least some Republicans willing to bend. That is why I suggest a new strategy: every time President Obama wants to introduce legislation, he should invoke the spirit of Ronald Reagan, the Republican icon.
Below is a “cheat sheet” on Reagan’s liberal views.
As governor of California, Reagan stood in opposition to the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in the public schools. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the likes of President Jimmy Carter and Harvey Milk. Just prior to the vote on the initiative, he wrote in an editorial that proclaimed “homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual’s sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child’s teachers do not really influence this.” This understanding may be less than perfect, but the sentiment is clear. Also, during Reagan’s presidency, the first openly gay couple spent a night together in the White House — interior decorator Ted Graber and his partner Archie Case stayed over while in town for Nancy Reagan’s 60th birthday party.
While Reagan is remembered for cutting taxes and the “trickle down” theory of economics, he was also responsible for some incredible tax increases. He signed into law the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), the largest peacetime tax increase in American history. TEFRA raised taxes by $37.5 billion per year; excise taxes on cigarettes were doubled, and excise taxes on telephone service tripled. By the end of his two terms, most Americans were paying more in Social Security taxes than in income taxes, and most Americans were paying more in federal taxes in 1988 than they were in 1980. In fact, Reagan signed measures that increased federal taxes every year of his two-term presidency except the first and the last. Besides the cigarette and phone taxes, these included a higher gasoline levy and a 1986 tax reform deal that included the largest corporate tax increase in American history. The next time a Republican says they favor “no new taxes”, Obama can point to any number of Reagan-era changes.
On April 20, 1983, President Reagan signed Social Security reform legislation that increased the payroll tax rate, and required that higher-income beneficiaries pay income tax on part of their benefits, and required the self-employed to pay the full payroll tax rate, rather than just the portion normally paid by employees. This guaranteed that Social Security would remain solvent. At that bill signing, the president said words every Republican should heed: “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have one pledge that they will get their fair share of benefits when they retire.” From these words, we see that he thought Social Security was not an “entitlement”, but rather “honoring a deal”.
President Reagan also said, “Social Security has nothing to do with balancing a budget or erasing or growing the deficit.” He refused to scrap it in order to cut the budget. Indeed, many so-called entitlement programs are not a drain on the economy, but rather an investment. A small portion of a paycheck into Social Security now ensures a basic safety net later and keeps the public cost down. Paying for public schools helps children grow up to get better jobs, earning more (and thus paying back the taxes we invested) and giving back to the community. Almost any “entitlement” can be seen as a savings — a small cost now saves a big cost later that is prevented by our investment.
Perhaps most at odds with today’s Republicans were Reagan’s views on Mexico. In a private meeting with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo in 1979, Reagan discussed how the United States and Mexico could make the border “something other than the location for a fence.” In announcing his presidential candidacy in November 1979, he proposed a “North American accord” where commerce and people could move freely across the borders with Canada and Mexico, not unlike the countries of Europe. While debating Walter Mondale in 1984, he said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” Following through on these words, he granted amnesty to almost three million illegal aliens in 1986 when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Can you imagine today having a border with Mexico where people freely travel rather than being the area of hundreds of miles of fence and countless armed guards?
President Reagan’s views on gun control might be termed not liberal or conservative, but common sense. In 1986, Reagan banned armor-piercing bullets, saying, “Certain forms of ammunition have no legitimate sporting, recreational, or self-defense use and thus should be prohibited.” One month after leaving office, Reagan said, “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”
Reagan supported the Brady Bill, saying, “It’s just plain common sense that there be a (seven day) waiting period to allow local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to buy a handgun.” He further supported the Clinton-era assault weapons ban (as did President Gerald Ford), telling Congress “statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals.”
Reagan today is seen as a small government conservative, and his admirers like to quote him saying “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Yes, he did say this. But he did not actually follow through on it. President Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times, and federal spending grew by an average of 2.5 percent a year under his watch. The national debt exploded, increasing from about $700 billion to nearly $3 trillion.
The number of workers on the federal payroll (many of whom were in the Defense Department) rose by 200,000 under Reagan — and actually fell under President Clinton by 373,000. Despite Reagan’s campaign pledge to get rid of the Departments of Energy and Education, he kept both of them intact. Furthermore, he actually added a new one, the Department of Veterans Affairs. (In fairness, this department existed in a different form since 1930, but Reagan raised it to Cabinet level and expanded it.)
President Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture in April 1988. In a statement to Congress, he called torture “an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.” He recognized that all countries who signed it, including the United States, were “required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.” We apparently forgot about this post-9/11.
As governor, Ronald Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act in 1967, stating that women should have “the moral principle of self-defense.” 518 legal abortions were performed in California in 1967, and after this the number of abortions would average 100,000 each year -— more abortions than in any state prior to Roe v. Wade. A Pro-Lifer could argue that Reagan indirectly killed millions of babies.
During his first year in office, Reagan had the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade by replacing retiring Justice Potter Stewart with a staunch conservative. Instead, he appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, who mostly upheld abortion rights during her 25 years on the bench.
In 1987, Reagan and Russian President Gorbachev signed a historic treaty in Washington that would eliminate their intermediate-range nuclear forces. In 1988, Reagan agreed with Gorbachev to reduce the nuclear stockpiles of each nation.