The Reagan Record

Ivan Eland, Eleven Presidents: Promises vs. Results in Achieving Limited Government (Oakland: Independent Institute, 2017), xi + 370 pgs, hardcover.

Republicans claim to be the party of the Constitution. They have since the early 20th century cultivated the image that they and their presidents are in favor of limited government while the Democrats and their presidents are in favor of big government.

Ivan Eland, senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute, in his new book Eleven Presidents: Promises vs. Results in Achieving Limited Government, shows, conclusively, that this is not the case.

Eland concludes that “Republican presidents in the last hundred years have often failed to limit government.” Only three Republican presidents — Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower — “had much of a record of doing so.” And surprisingly, the Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton “actually have not received enough credit for their efforts to limit government.” Eland maintains that Reagan, whose “championing of limited government was mostly rhetorical,” converted the Republican Party “into a more statist political organization.”

In my review of Eleven Presidents (“Hey There, Big Spender,” New American, Feb. 5, 2018), I wrote this about the chapter on Reagan:

The longest chapter in the book (double or triple the length of every other chapter but the one on George W. Bush) is the chapter on Reagan. And rightly so, since he has been beatified by conservatives for much too long. Reagan was “the king of ‘small government’ hot air.” The chapter title says it all: “Busting the Myths.” This chapter is certainly the most important one in the book, and by itself is worth the price of the book.

I wrote just this because I knew it would take a whole article to cover what Eland writes about Reagan.

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This is that article.

The “mythology that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War and was a small government conservative has nothing to do with his policy record while president and everything to do with his legacy being used as a weapon by conservatives against a subsequent Democratic president.” In fact, just as Carter “had some policies that were more conservative than Reagan,” so Clinton “turned out to be more conservative on some issues than the Gipper.” Subsequent to Reagan leaving office, conservatives “made an arduous effort to sanitize Reagan’s record.”

The Reagan myths that Eland destroys are found under four heads:

  1. Winning the Cold War
  2. Image and interventionism
  3. The administration’s scandals were not severe
  4. A smaller federal government?

Reagan gets too much credit for winning the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union did not occur until the end of 1989 and 1991—when George H. W. Bush was president. The Soviet economy “had already started to decline during the late 1960s, years before Reagan took office.” It was Gorbachev who decided “to give up supporting East European Communist dictatorships with the Soviet Red Army, thus ending the forty-plus-year-old Cold War.

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Iran-Contra “was a more severe breach constitutionally than Watergate.” The Reagan administration “violated a criminal law and its own international arms embargo by selling heavy weapons at elevated prices to a terrorist-sponsoring nation, Iran, to attempt to ransom hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.” The proceeds were then used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras in their attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government.

Reagan pioneered “the ramp-up of US military intervention from the more restrained immediate post-Vietnam War era” of Ford and Carter. He got involved on both sides of the Iran-Iraq War. Reagan created future foreign policy problems by “helping to create bin Laden’s al Qaeda and the Taliban.” He “created the tools used for a future ramp-up of US military intervention in the region.” Reagan’s image of using direct military intervention sparingly was a lie. He made three major direct military interventions that were “unprovoked, aggressive, unnecessary, and against small, feeble countries.”

In spite of Reagan’s rhetoric, he did not believe in a smaller federal government. According to Eland:

Over the Reagan years, despite a huge and unnecessary military buildup, federal spending on social programs increased in real terms and as a percentage of the federal budget.

Entitlement spending continued to increase from 1980 to 1987, with the three largest programs—Social Security, Medicare, and other healthcare spending—increasing 84 percent.

Reagan traded increases in defense spending for even larger increases in nondefense spending.

Reagan’s defense budget bought systems that were technologically infeasible, were unneeded, were white elephants, or had no viable strategic rationale.

Despite his small government rhetoric, Reagan seemed to have little sustained desire to cut nondefense spending, actually added a cabinet department (the Department of Veterans Affairs), and increased the number of federal employees from 2.8 million to 3 million.

During Reagan’s first term, the yearly federal budget deficit grew from 2.7 percent to a then record of 6.3 percent of GDP. By 1989, at the end of his second term, the national debt stood at $2 trillion, making him one of the worst peacetime spendthrifts in US presidential history.

Reagan was a welfare/warfare statist. True, he was a tax cutter. But he was also a tax raiser. Reagan’s tax hikes in 1982 and 1984 “then constituted the biggest tax increase ever in peacetime.” Reagan raised taxes in six out of the eight years of his presidency, thirteen times in all. He increased payroll taxes and had “the largest increase ever in corporate taxes.” Reagan’s net tax reduction “was the smallest per capita of any Republican president during the post-World War era.”

Reagan also launched a vigorous attack against pornography and obscenity, expanded Nixon’s war on drugs, approved laws to jail many nonviolent offenders with mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, vastly expanded the federal prison population, signed into law the King holiday, approved protectionist measures, expanded Medicare, and signed an immigration bill that legalized almost 3 million undocumented aliens.

As I said at the end of my review of Eleven Presidents, I cannot recommend the book highly enough. Not only does it demolish the myth that the Republican Party is the party of the Constitution and limited government, it especially destroys the Reagan myth. I also highly recommended Eland’s first book on the U.S. presidents: Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (Independent Institute, 2009, updated 2014).