Posted by: Randy Allgaier | February 10, 2008

Ronald Reagan- The Conservative God: Myth over Reality

I am not a Conservative and I am not a fan of Ronald Reagan. But I truly do not understand the deification of Ronald Reagan by the Conservative Right- his record wouldn’t be very popular by the Right today. It baffles me. I watched some of the CPAC convention and they spoke of Reagan as if he had been Christ himself.  The Conservative Republicans all worship at the alter of Ronald Reagan.  Governor Romney invoked the name of Reagan regularly to present “Conservative credibility” and Senator McCain continues to refer to himself as a “foot soldier” of the Reagan Revolution. 

Didn’t they live through the 1980’s? Sure he was transformational in the way that Senator Barack Obama has described, but there is so much about his record I would imagine would infuriate the Right Wing nuts- tax increases, immigration reform, a poor economy, increasing the size of government, arming the Taliban and Sadaam Hussein. Why is it that they deify him so? The policies and actions of his presidency do not give credence to the Reagan myth. It seems that this is nothing more than, as President Clinton said of Mr. Obama’s campaign- a fairy tale. The thing is that Mr. Obama’s campaign is not a fairy tale, but the Reagan myth is.

They claim he ended the Cold War- a fact I dispute – The fall of the Soviet Union was based on many factors that fell into place during his presidency not because of some miracle performed by Ronald Reagan.  You can read more about this in my post Who ended the Cold War? The Clash of Myth and Reality

Reagan is, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in U.S. history and will certainly be remembered as such. His record on the environment, defense, and economic policy is very much in line with its portrayal. But he entered office as an ideologue who promised a conservative revolution, vowing to slash the size of government, radically scale back entitlements, and deploy the powers of the presidency in pursuit of socially and culturally conservative goals. That he essentially failed in this mission hasn’t stopped partisan biographers from pretending otherwise.

A sober review of Reagan’s presidency doesn’t yield the seamlessly conservative record being peddled today. Federal government expanded on his watch. The conservative desire to outlaw abortion was never seriously pursued. Reagan broke with the hardliners in his administration and compromised with the Soviets on arms control. His assault on entitlements never materialized; instead he saved Social Security in 1983 (which was probably the best thing he did). And he repeatedly ignored the fundamental conservative dogma that taxes should never be raised

At the outset of his first term, Reagan’s revolution appeared to have unstoppable momentum. His administration passed an historic tax cut based on dramatic cuts in marginal tax rates and began a massive defense buildup. To help compensate for the tax cut, his first budget called for slashing $41.4 billion from 83 federal programs, only the first round in a planned series of cuts. And Reagan himself made known his desire to eliminate the departments of Energy and Education, and to scale back what his first budget director David Stockman called the “closet socialism” of Social Security and Medicaid.

But after his initial victories on tax cuts and defense, the revolution effectively stalled. Deficits started to balloon, the recession soon deepened (due to tax cuts and increase in defense spending), his party lost ground in the 1982 midterms, and thereafter Reagan never seriously tried to enact the radical domestic agenda he’d campaigned on. Rather than abolish the departments of Energy and Education, as he had promised to do if elected president, Reagan added a new cabinet-level department–one of the largest federal agencies–the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Though his budgets requested some cuts in some areas of discretionary spending, Reagan rapidly retreated and never seriously pushed them. As Lou Cannon, the Washington Post reporter who covered Reagan’s political career for 25 years, put it in his masterful biography, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, “For all the fervor they created, the first-term Reagan budgets were mild manifestos devoid of revolutionary purpose. They did not seek to ‘rebuild the foundation of our society’ (the task Reagan set for himself and Congress in a nationally televised speech of February 5, 1981) or even to accomplish the ‘sharp reduction in the spending growth trend’ called for in [his] Economic Recovery Plan.” By Reagan’s second term, the idea of seriously diminishing the budget was, to quote Stockman, “an institutionalized fantasy.” Though in speeches Reagan continued to repeat his bold pledge to “get government out of the way of the people,” government stayed pretty much where it was.

This hasn’t stopped recent contemporary conservative biographers from claiming otherwise. “He said he would cut the budget, and he did,” declares Peggy Noonan in When Character Was King. In fact, the budget grew significantly under Reagan. All he managed to do was moderately slow its rate of growth. What’s more, the number of workers on the federal payroll rose by 61,000 under Reagan. (By comparison, under Clinton, the number fell by 373,000.)

One year after his massive tax cut, Reagan agreed to a tax increase to reduce the deficit that restored fully one-third of the previous year’s reduction. (In a bizarre bit of self-deception, Reagan, who never came to terms with this episode of ideological apostasy, persuaded himself that the three-year, $100 billion tax hike–the largest since World War II–was actually “tax reform” that closed loopholes in his earlier cut and therefore didn’t count as raising taxes.)

Faced with looming deficits, Reagan raised taxes again in 1983 with a gasoline tax and once more in 1984, this time by $50 billion over three years, mainly through closing tax loopholes for business. Despite the fact that such increases were anathema to conservatives–and probably cost Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, reelection–Reagan raised taxes a grand total of four times just between 1982-84.

Reagan deserves some credit for a foreign policy of confronting and challenging the Soviet Union that helped bring on its collapse–a central theme of any account of his life- even though his challenge to the Soviet Union was done so by shoring up the Taliban in Afghanistan.  But the vexing problem for conservatives, then and now, was that Reagan’s bellicosity, which they liked, obscured an equally strong belief that nuclear weapons could and should be abolished, a conviction found mainly on the liberal left. Long before he became president, Reagan had argued for a massive military buildup not just to confront the Soviets, which hardliners approved, but also to put the United States in a stronger position from which to establish effective arms control–a goal to which conservative pragmatists subscribed. But no one shared, or even understood until late in the game, Reagan’s desire for total disarmament. “My dream,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “became a world free of nuclear weapons.” This vision stemmed from the president’s belief that the biblical account of Armageddon prophesied nuclear war–and that apocalypse could be averted if everyone, especially the Soviets, eliminated nuclear weapons.

The great success of Reagan’s 1980 campaign was that it united the disparate strands of the conservative movement: supply-siders, libertarians, religious conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and big business. The fact that Reagan’s presidency didn’t accomplish anything approaching its seismic promise–the size of government grew, abortion remained legal, and entitlements still abounded–is one that his partisan biographers elide by focusing on what Reagan believed and said rather than on what he actually did. The imaginary Reagan who inhabits these books embodies the ideas on which all these groups can agree. His shining example helps maintain the coalition while putting pressure on current GOP politicians to hew to the hard-right ideal.

During Reagan’s 8 years in power, the CIA secretly sent billions of dollars of military aid to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in a US-supported jihad against the Soviet Union. We take a look at America’s role in Afghanistan that led to the rise of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

In 1985, while Iran and Iraq were at war, Iran made a secret request to buy weapons from the United States. McFarlane sought Reagan’s approval, in spite of the embargo against selling arms to Iran. McFarlane explained that the sale of arms would not only improve U.S. relations with Iran, but might in turn lead to improved relations with Lebanon, increasing U.S. influence in the troubled Middle East. Reagan was driven by a different obsession. He had become frustrated at his inability to secure the release of the seven American hostages being held by Iranian terrorists in Lebanon. As president, Reagan felt that “he had the duty to bring those Americans home,” and he convinced himself that he was not negotiating with terrorists. While shipping arms to Iran violated the embargo, dealing with terrorists violated Reagan’s campaign promise never to do so. Reagan had always been admired for his honesty.

A clear analysis of Mr. Reagan’s policies supporting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and Sadaam Hussein in Iraq lead me to the conclusion that the iconic Mr. Reagan actually added and abetted the causes of terrorists in Afghanistan and Sadaam- a man who Ronald Reagan armed, by illegal means, and then by George W. Bush attacked to disarm.

And then there was The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which included that dirtiest of all Conservative words – AMNESTY!

The real Reagan, on the other hand, would bring discord to the current conservative agenda. If you believe, as conservatives now do, that raising taxes is always wrong, then it’s hard to admit that Reagan himself did so repeatedly. If you argue that the relative tax burden on low-income workers is too light, as the Bush administration does, then it does not pay to dwell on the fact that Reagan himself helped lighten that burden. If you insist, as many hardliners now do, that America is dangerously soft on communist China, then it is best to ignore Reagan’s own softening toward the Soviet Union. As with other conservative media efforts–Rush Limbaugh, Fox News Channel, The Washington Times–the purpose of the Reagan legacy project is not to deliver accuracy, but enhance political leverage.

I guess the 1980’s were a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. History is re-written quickly. I thought rewriting history that occurred in my life time wouldn’t happen at least until I was dead.



  1. Not all conservatives worship at the alter of Reagan. However, I do respect him. There are many things in is administration that I do not agree with especially that he consistantly cut federal funding for middle class college students.

  2. I too disagree with him cutting federal funding for middle class college students- but I happen to be a Liberal Democrat. Aren’t you making my point? Totday’s Right Wing Conservatives would insist on this sort of cutting!

  3. I guess but my comment was more of a commentary than a debate. I’m neither democratot or republican, I have a brain & prefer to think for myself. In fact, I think we should get rid of both parties & start over. I don’t agree with many conservatives in the area of social justice nor do I agree with liberal on the issue of governmental involvement. Ideally, the government should have as little involment in my daily life as posssible.

  4. Since people are so ignorant of history, he is a mythical figure, for most devoid of content, that they can then use to dress up whatever au courant views they have. It’s true he wasn’t perfectly conservative, but he did fight for limited government, a stronger military, a muscular approach to the Soviets, and a rhetorical shift in favor of patriotism and traditional American values. After Carter, these were no small achievements.

  5. Hi Randy, What a long article on your confusion of why conservatives scramble for a place at the great Reagan teet… did I say long?? LOL

    I was a teenager during the 80’s and couldn’t have given two loud farts about society, the world, the health of my braincells or anything those geezers in suits had to say. You ever heard the old saying some attribute to W. Churchill (disputed) “Anyone under 25 who is not a Democrat is heartless and anyone over 30 not a conservative is stupid?” or something like that…

    My guess is that as far as the conservative ideology as a whole, Reagan best repesented it most recently. No one leader is going to make everyone happy all of the time, but you already know that… so far as I can tell your lot’s smarter than this ‘ole gub’ment trained killer…. 🙂
    He definately “glued” the GOP back together and you must admit that after the Carter disaster he came in and cleaned up a lot of messes… remember those Americans held for over a year by Iran while Jimmy stood there with his “pencil” in his hand? Hell, Machmoonijihad was one of the captors!

    So, I have no good reason why, other than like I said above he best represented an ideology… one that will always prevail and serve us best… agree??? 🙂

  6. Interesting article. I will probably visit your site to get some more relative information.

  7. uuhhhhhhh Randy??? you there???

  8. I am so touched! I’ve actually had a bad flu and have had a pretty hectic schedule- so I haven’t been blogging that much. God knows I have a lot to say (I know shocking) so I guess I’ll be posting a ton of stuff next week when I am back to my old self

  9. nice read. thanks for the info

  10. Is there some reason Joshua Green’s article in Washington Monthly from 2003 was included in this post as if it were from Allgaier?
    Stealing 5-year-old crap and passing it off without attribution?
    Come on, man!
    Maybe you should go back and read Josh Green’s piece,

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