During his radio program on Thursday, Rush Limbaugh lamented the apparent aimlessness of today’s GOP. “I can remember back in the days, the Reagan years, it was exciting to be a Republican,” he said. We knew what we supported. We had a president and a political party that we knew was attempting to implement what we believed, and they were winning.”
Rush’s memory is faulty. Reagan had a real impact on domestic and foreign policy, and he drew new voters to the Republican Party. But many of his accomplishments became evident only in hindsight. For most of Reagan’s time in office, Republicans and conservatives were not nearly as excited as Rush thinks they were. In fact, they were often frustrated and angry
During his first year in office, Reagan got Congress to pass major tax cuts. But for a couple of years after that, the economy went bad. At one point in 1982, unemployment hit 10.8 percent, greater than the worst level of the recent Great Recession. Deficits soared, prompting Reagan to sign the largest peacetime tax increase in American history up to that time. In reacting to the measure, Newt Gingrich spoke for many GOP conservatives: “The fact is, on this particular bill, the president is trying to score a touchdown for liberalism, for the liberal welfare state, for big government, for the Internal Revenue Service, for multinational corporations, and for the various forces that consistently voted against this president.”
In the years to follow, Reagan also signed increases in gas taxes and Social Security taxes, among others. In inflation-adjusted dollars, federal revenues grew 20 percent between 1981 and 1989. Spending grew faster, so the deficit got bigger.
“I expected more to happen,” said John Dolan, chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, in 1983. “There has been no major defense buildup beyond what Carter would have done. There has been no spending cut. There has been no turnover of control to the states. There has been no effort to dismantle the Washington bureaucratic elitist establishment.”
Around the same time, Howard Phillips, chair of the Conservative Caucus, said that in pursuing a "nonconfrontational political strategy to mollify the Washington establishment,” Reagan seemed to have forgotten those who “sustained him in the political wilderness for all those years.”
Conservatives rightly remember Reagan for winning the cold war. But they forget that they that had wanted him to be far more aggressive.
On March 21, 1986, Gingrich said on the House floor: “The gap between Ronald Reagan's United Nations speech, in which he courageously called for support for freedom fighters in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Nicaragua, the gap between that speech and the reality of our pathetically incompetent efforts is a gap that should be a scandal, if only we took it seriously.”
In a 1987 interview with television broadcasters, a reporter asked the president about a nuclear arms treaty and said, “The conservatives, the right wing of your party, are after your scalp.” Reagan responded:
“I think that the objections that we are hearing – and, yes, from some of our own, you might say, allies and own forces – they're based on a lack of knowledge as to what this treaty contains, and particularly they are ignorant of the advances that have been made in verification.… Now, I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, those people, basically, down in their deepest thoughts, have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers.”
Conservatives were indignant. Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming said: “Almost as offensive as his calling us warmongers was his apology for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.” (Reagan had said that Mikhail Gorbachev had “inherited” the occupation.) Sen. Dan Quayle (R) of Indiana added: “I’ll have to be honest that I was particularly appalled by the rhetoric last night, by the president of the United States, directed to those who would raise concerns about this treaty.”
As George Will put it, “For conservatives, Ronald Reagan's foreign policy has produced much surprise but little delight.”
Ronald Reagan did much to advance the conservative cause. But during his presidency, conservatives did not always see it that way.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.