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Rewriting Reagan By: Joseph J. Sabia
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Shortly following Ronald Reagan’s passing, Peggy Noonan predicted that liberals would crack by week’s end, unable to handle the outpouring of love and affection for our fortieth president. She was right — liberals became totally unhinged

Some were vicious. The New York Times called Reagan “lucky” and a “Teflon president.” In Time Magazine, Joe Klein wrote that Reagan “rarely attended church” and that his governing style was filled with “flagrant inconsistencies,” including pushing an “utterly preposterous missile defense system.” As Reagan’s casket was being carried to the Capitol Rotunda, Peter Jennings remarked that little was being said about his “dealings with African Americans.” Jennings also insisted that the president really “didn’t have any friends.”


Others were ludicrous. Carl Bernstein appeared on MSNBC with Joe Scarborough to argue that the Reagan administration could be summed up by multiple “disasters” — tax cuts, SDI, Iran-Contra, and unemployment. Magnanimously, he gave Reagan credit for cheering people up and ending the Cold War, but insisted that figures like George Kennan, Harry Truman and John Kennedy were just as responsible as Reagan for the fall of Communism. That Kennan’s containment policy was a miserable failure, that Truman lost China to the Communists and that the Berlin Wall was erected during the Kennedy administration didn’t faze Bernstein. 


Other liberals insisted that if Reagan achieved greatness, it was because of his willingness to turn his back on conservatives. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman praised Reagan’s “pragmatic leadership” in endorsing “large tax increases.” (Yes, when I hear the name Ronald Reagan, I think “The Great Tax Hiker.”) He claimed that big tax hikes made Reagan a great president and insisted that his “pragmatism” is “sorely lacking” in President Bush. When liberals use words like “pragmatism” and “moderation,” they always mean “more liberal.”


The truth is that Reagan endorsed massive individual income tax reductions in 1981 and again in 1986. Marginal income tax rates fell dramatically as a result of these actions, with the top rate falling from 70 to 28 percent. The capital gains tax rate was also cut substantially. These pro-free market economic reforms led to more freedom for the American people and, consequently, to the greatest economic expansion in American history.


Krugman’s reference to Reagan signing a 1982 tax hike — which scaled back specific tax cuts for businesses, not individuals — was not evidence of the president’s “pragmatism.” Reagan reluctantly went along with the legislation because Congressional Democrats pledged big reductions in domestic spending for every dollar in tax hikes. Of course, the tax increases went into effect immediately and the spending cuts never materialized. The tax hike did not ameliorate the deficit; rather, it exacerbated the recession. The lesson that Reagan learned from the 1982 tax increase was not that he should “pragmatically” turn his back on conservatives, but rather that liberal Democrats should not be trusted with pledges to cut government spending.


Some liberals view Reagan’s foreign policy achievements in much the same way as his domestic policy accomplishments. The New Republic’s Vladislav Zubok claimed that it was “Reagan the dove” who created the conditions for the Soviet Union to collapse. Calling SDI “a bit player in the final act of the Cold War,” Zubok argued that Reagan’s softening attitude towards the Soviets was what really brought them to their knees. The rest was “luck,” which “Reagan certainly had in abundance.”


Zubok presents the standard liberal worldview: Mikhail “Dude, Where’s My Empire?” Gorbachev was the driving force behind the end of the Soviet Union. We are never given an explanation as to why Gorbachev chose to kill his own empire during the Reagan Years. Instead, Zubok argues that Reagan’s signing of the 1987 INF treaty, which banned intermediate-range missiles, was evidence of his “pragmatism.”


But Reagan’s support of the INF treaty was not a U-turn — he had always supported the destruction of nuclear weapons, having favored the cause since the beginning of his political life. However, he did not believe in unilateral disarmament. Reagan knew that one can only negotiate peace when he does so from a position of strength and superiority. He always believed that containment and détente were disastrous policies and argued that we needed a massive arms build-up to bankrupt the Soviets, forcing them to the bargaining table. His signing of the INF treaty was part of his plan from day one. It wasn’t “pragmatism.” It was the Reagan Doctrine.


Ronald Reagan was one of the most beloved presidents in history not because he was a nice old man or because he told funny stories. Americans loved President Reagan because they embraced his conservative ideas — ideas that transformed the world. Liberals cannot allow this fact to see the light of day. Hence, they are now desperate to rewrite history to show that Reagan was a lucky, pragmatic, tax-hiking, big government dove. Liberals want to claim Reagan as one of their own. But after last week’s glorious recounting of the Gipper’s immense achievements, liberals are not fooling anyone except, perhaps, themselves.

Joseph J. Sabia is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Cornell University.

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