The Real Ronald Reagan
February 07, 2011, 5:00am


Yesterday marked the 100th birthday of America’s 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan. All over the country, prominent conservatives and Republican figures are celebrating the anniversary of Reagan’s birthday, claiming that the former president was “guided by strong conservative principles” and that he truly made America a “shining city on a hill” — “stronger and freer” thanks to his leadership. Yet what conservatives casually omit is that many of his policies sharply deviated from what is considered conservative orthodoxy today — like his strong record of trade protectionism and granting residency to millions of undocumented immigrants — and that other policies he pursued decimated the middle class, ignored pressing social crises, and stood by as tyranny fermented abroad. It was these facts that journalist Mike Stark presented to right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh that left the conservative icon speechless. Today, the Progress Report will serve to debunk the myths about one of America’s most famous presidents and introduce you to the real Ronald Reagan.

THE REAL REAGONOMICS: Conservatives often praise Reagan for his “sweeping economic reforms,” which included tax cuts, deregulation, and liberalized trade policies. Yet the truth is that, in the classical sense, Reagan wasn’t an economic conservative at all, often radically expanding the size of government and the federal budget deficit — just doing so in ways that did not benefit most Americans, especially the poor. In fact, many of Reagan’s economic policies would be considered heretical today by the modern conservative movement for the way they deviated from what is considered right-wing orthodoxy. As President, Reagan “raised taxes 11 times in his administration.” This is a stark departure from today’s conservative ideology; hundreds of elected Republicans in Congress have even signed oaths pledging to never raise taxes under any circumstances. And while modern conservatives boast of their commitment to rein in the budget deficit, reduce the size of government, and pursue free trade, Reagan seriously deviated from those policies. He nearly tripled the size of the federal budget deficit and federal spending “ballooned” during his tenure. And he notably used tariffs and trade controls to protect domestic industry, at one point imposing a 100 percent tariff on some Japanese electronic products, enacting major quotas on sugar imports, and establishing the largest steel tariff in American history. And while the right may boast of Reagan’s economic policies, the truth is that they helped hollow out the middle class and decimate America’s social safety net. Reagan cut federal funds to cities and slashed the federal housing program which more than doubled the country’s homeless population. He deregulated the savings & loan industry, which led to enormous taxpayer-funded bailouts and widespread financial industry failures, as even the Cato Institute admits was a failure. Per capita income for the bottom 90 percent of the population fell .3 percent during Reagan’s presidency while the incomes of the top 1 percent increased by 55 percent. Even his famed tax cuts did little to alleviate strains on the middle class, with the bottom 40 percent of households paying “out more of their income in federal taxes in 1988 than they had in 1980.” Rather than transforming America into a “shining city on a hill,” Reagan turned America into a “tale of two cities,” as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo (D) said, with the rich wildly prospering and everyone else fighting over table scraps.

THE REAL REAGAN FOREIGN POLICY: Today’s modern conservative movement champions Reagan as a man who freely brandished America’s military might and sought to “stand up for freedom” all over the world. Yet one has to wonder if today’s right-wing hawks would endorse Reagan’s “dream” of a “world free of nuclear weapons,” as he wrote in his diary — or if they would approve of him withdrawing the U.S. military from Lebanon following rebel attacks on Marines stationed there. And while Reagan did champion the cause of pro-democracy activists agitating against a geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, he often sided with some of the world’s worst tyrants and terrorists — breaking with the modest human rights policies enacted by President Jimmy Carter. He called Apartheid South Africa in 1981 a country that “strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals,” and bitterly fought congressional efforts to place sanctions on the Apartheid government, eventually even vetoing Congress’s anti-Apartheid act (which was later overridden thanks to a revolt of Senate Republicans). Meanwhile, his administration sold arms to Iran in order to fund a right-wing militant movement known as the Contras in Nicaragua; these Contras went on to massacre tens of thousands of people, many of them nonviolent labor unionists or Christian theology activists. Reagan funded right-wing terrorists and dictators across Central America; in El Salvador, the Reagan-funded right-wing regime even assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, a priest working to organize workers and feed the poor. Additionally, Reagan funded and trained the right-wing Guatemalan military, which a United Nations commission later found was a “key factor” in the military committing “acts of genocide” that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of members of the indigenous Mayan community and many other nonviolent left-wing activists. These U.S.-subsidized human rights violations became so extreme that Congress had to eventually move to rebuke Reagan and cut off funding to countries like Nicaragua that he had allied himself with. Writing about Reagan’s policies in Central America, Thomas Carothers, who was tasked with “democracy promotion” in the Reagan State Department, wrote that Reagan policies favored only “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied.” It was under Reagan that the United States armed and backed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, bolstering his aggressive war against Iran, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and embittering both countries against the United States. And his administration helped lay the groundwork for Al Qaeda by financing and training an Islamist militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan aimed around fighting the Soviet Union.

THE REAL REAGAN SOCIAL POLICY: While leading conservative commentators have praised Reagan as having “classical virtues,” defending what they believe to be a starkly traditionalist set of American conservative social principles, there are many elements of his agenda which they’d be hesitant to endorse. And of the great stains on Reagan’s social policy legacy — the way he ignored the AIDS crisis — has all been written out of the conservative movement’s history of their icon. He completely ignored the AIDS crisis, not even addressing it until his second term when he was directly asked about it. At that point, between 20,000-30,000 Americans had already died from the disease. His administration silenced its own surgeon general, who wanted to proactively tackle the issue, and battled against comprehensive sex education. When the surgeon general was asked about Reagan’s thinking on the issue, he said that because AIDS was a disease primarily affecting homosexuals, Reagan’s closest advisers took the view that “they are only getting what they justly deserve.” And disturbingly, Reagan opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, saying that it was “humiliating to the South. He even gave one of his major speeches on “states’ rights” while running for president in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town where three civil rights workers were murdered, an ominous “dog whistle” in support of racist elements. Yet not every item of Reagan’s social agenda was so harmful. As president, he engaged in a raucous immigration debate that ended when he signed into law legislation that helped three million undocumented immigrants gain residency and millions of more family members.

THE REAL REAGAN ADMINISTRATION: One fact left unmentioned in conservative tributes to the former president is the widespread corruption and scandals within the Reagan administration due to the elevation of individuals to lead agencies who did not fundamentally believe in the public sector. More than a dozen administration officials had to resign following the revelation of the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan’s own HUD Secretary used the agency to give Republican donors favorable housing grants. Over 20 high-level EPA officials were forced to resign following revelations that they had allowed themselves to be influenced by polluters; and as CAP’s Joe Romm points out, Reagan “gutted” all of the Carter administration’s clean energy efforts. Another scandal involved Department of Justice officials both engaging in piracy and then being tasked to investigate those same acts of piracy. More “than fifty officials at the Defense Department and private contractors” were “convicted for rigging bids and falsifying results of quality-control tests,” again the result of collusion between the administration and corporate power. As the New York Times’s Gary Willis wrote about the HUD scandals, “for [HUD] administrator Deborah Gore Dean,” running HUD for “the benefits of family, friends and fellow ideologues” would serve the ultimate cause of driving the agency “into disrepute or desuetude.” In other words, Reagan’s “conservatism” that believed that government is “the problem” spawned a network of government officials who freely used the government they viewed as illegitimate for their own benefit.

Think Fast

Egypt’s vice president met with several major opposition groups for the first time yesterday and offered new concessions including freedom of the press, the release of detained protesters and an eventual lifting of the country’s hated emergency laws. Meanwhile, the military “has rounded scores of human rights activists, protest organizers and journalists in recent days without formal charges, according to watchdog groups.”

President Obama will address the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today “to show a new era of warm feelings” between a Chamber “in need of bipartisan bona fidas” and a president “seeking credibility with centrist voters and corporate donors.” Obama still intends to defend new restrictions on insurance companies in the health care law and tell executives they have an “obligation” to “hire our workers, and pay decent wages.”

In his pre-Super Bowl interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, Obama insisted he “didn’t move” toward the political center to raise his approval ratings, adding, “I’m the same guy.” Sounding off on the recent ruling declaring health reform unconstitutional, Obama said the Florida judge “was wrong” and that he is not interested in “refighting the battles of the last two years.”

In a New York Times op-ed, White House OMB Director Jacob Lew said Obama’s budget proposal makes “tough choices” in spending cuts “since every decision to invest in one program will necessitate a cut somewhere else.” Lew cited cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, community service block grants, and community development block grants as three of the “indiscriminate cuts” that will offered on February 14.

Sudan’s president accepted the results of the vote held in the southern part of the country to secede from the North, paving the way for the country to split this summer. “Today we received these results and we accept and welcome these results because they represent the will of the southern people,” Bashir said in an address on state TV today.

The Obama administration is courting Al-Jazeera “in an attempt to improve a history of testy relations with one of the most influential news outlets in the Middle East.” The State Department has sought to put U.S. officials on the network in recent weeks. “If we are not in the conversation, people will be speaking for us or about us,” a State Department media relations official said.

The U.S. and Russia exchanged documents this weekend that formally activated the New START arms control treaty. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “traded so-called instruments of ratification” that “starts the clock ticking on verification and inspection procedures for the two sides’ nuclear arsenals.”

And finally: Nothing is sexier to conservatives than Ronald Reagan, so the Mission Inn in Riverside, CA is now offering “The Reagan Honeymoon Package,” allowing couples to stay in same room in which President Reagan and First Lady Nancy slept on their 1952 honeymoon at the resort. For just $1,199, honeymooners get “Deluxe Accommodations for Two in the Alhambra Suite,” where the Reagans stayed the first night of their marriage, along with dinner, massages, and passes to the Reagan Library.

Blog Watch

Bush cancels Swiss trip due to fear of prosecution for authorizing torture.

Standing with Planned Parenthood and against smear artists.

Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) proposes privatization scheme to finance tax breaks for the rich.

Why are Rep. Pete King’s (R-NY) Muslim HUAC hearings still happening?

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s Super Bowl return is proof that affirmative action works.

U.S. has secret tools to force the Internet on dictators.

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) stops governing during State of Emergency.

A modest proposal on entitlements.

Daily Grill

“What you do have is clearly an open willingness of several organizations meaning subsidiaries of Planned Parenthood nationally, in the same category: sex trafficking of minors, and an open willingness to participate in this.”
— Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), 2/06/11


“Planned Parenthood, a perennial protest target because of its role in providing abortions, has notified the FBI that at least 12 of its health centers were visited recently by a man purporting to be a sex trafficker but who may instead be part of an attempted ruse to entrap clinic employees.”
— AP, 1/24/11