Memo to GOP: Even Ronald Reagan raised taxes

The cult of Ronald Reagan is alive and well in Republican precincts across the land, from the nation's capital to outposts in Georgia, Montana and Missouri. But the faith of the followers has distorted Reagan's legacy. The Reagan whom his acolytes worship is a shallow hardliner who doesn't bear much resemblance to the pragmatic and flexible man who occupied the White House for most of the '80s.

If you asked the legions of Reagan standard-bearers about his opposition to taxes, for example, they'd reply that he never sanctioned a tax increase. That idea has taken such hold in the GOP that no Republican politician dares mutter "tax hike" except as an expletive.

Over the coming months, as President Obama takes up the task of deficit reduction, you'll hear that conservative article of faith preached from the Senate floor, on the airwaves favored by conservative talk show hosts, in the policy papers cranked out by conservative think tanks. There's just a tiny problem of fact: Reagan did, too, raise taxes.

Staring at a sea of red ink, a Democratic Congress passed a bill in 1982 that raised taxes by $37.5 billion a year. Reagan could have vetoed the legislation, but he chose to sign it. (He also later signed legislation increasing the Social Security tax, which put the program on sound fiscal footing.)

Most economists agree that raising taxes during a recession is a bad idea, so it's unlikely that President Obama will propose a tax hike in this calendar year. (Besides, Democrats, already spooked by their prospects in midterm elections, wouldn't support one, anyway.) But as the year goes on, Obama and his aides will have to come forward with serious proposals to bring government spending in line with revenues. Tax increases will have to be part of the mix.

If Congress were a more rational body, with appropriate respect for actual data and the historical record, we'd hear no more about tax cuts as the balm for every wound. The last decade — the "Lost Decade" — provided a living experiment with tax cuts as economic policy, since George W. Bush passed three massive ones.

How'd that work out? The nation saw zero — zero — net job growth over the last 10 years. Middle-class wages stagnated. What the nation got out of the bargain was a massive budget deficit.

As much rhetorical fire as Republicans have aimed at the Obama administration, he inherited most of the budget mess. And the only way out of it will be to raise taxes, starting with the most affluent Americans.

No, it won't be possible to cut government programs and services enough to balance the budget. Most federal funds go to military spending and to Social Security and Medicare, not to welfare programs or foreign aid or other projects that might be easily tossed aside — politically speaking.

A tiny handful of brave and thoughtful conservatives — enough to hold a convention in a Mini-Cooper — are trying to wrench their party away from the cult of a no-new-taxes Reagan. The leader of this hardy band is Bruce Bartlett, who actually worked for Reagan as a domestic policy adviser. In a book published last year — "The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward" — he calls for hefty tax increases.

Though he doesn't go that far, conservative columnist and blogger Ross Douthat has also warned the GOP about the cult of Reaganomics. He wrote recently in The New York Times:

"In the unhappy aughts, we witnessed the exhaustion of Reaganomics. A quarter-century after Ronald Reagan's mix of tax cuts and deregulation revived American competitiveness, George W. Bush's attempt to imitate the Gipper produced only wage stagnation and skyrocketing debt."

Perhaps that's heresy, but it has a certain ring of truth.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at

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