Don't Mythologize Reagan's Political Purity--or Kennedy's

Reagan may not have made it in today's Republican Party, but JFK would have problems with Democrats

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Each party has their ideal president. A person whose strengths we highlight, whose weaknesses we whitewash, and whom, in general, we mythologize.

For Republicans it’s Reagan. Reagan was, to be sure, one of the most conservative presidents in recent history. But he wasn’t exactly the Republican cowboy who lassoed deficits, tamed the size of federal government, and wrestled with entitlements, that Republicans have shaped him into. This highly stylized version of a truly nuanced man provides some of the main ammunition behind the liberal critique of the current makeup of the Republican Party. They argue that Republicans have become beholden to the far right elements of the party. Then, with a grin on their face, they point out that Reagan could have never become the Republican presidential nominee given today’s demand for ideological purity.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Are they right? Are Democrats any different? More importantly, what does this mean for the future of our parties?

First, they may be right. We tend to single out his 1981 tax cuts that provided a 25 percent across the board cut in personal marginal tax rates. In doing so we tend to ignore the later rollback of some individual and corporate tax cuts. All told, Americans were paying less in income taxes but more in payroll taxes by the end of his presidency.

We highlight Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise “to move boldly, decisively, and quickly to control the runaway growth of federal spending.” It’s true that Reagan did cut federal spending as a proportion of GDP, but that ignores the fact that under the last year of the Carter administration the federal government spent $591 billion while under the last year of the Reagan administration we spent $990 billion.

The list of differences between today’s perception and yesterday’s reality goes on, but suffice it to say that there are significant discrepancies. The same can be said for many historically lionized Democrats. We tend to overlook the misgivings of FDR’s record when it comes to securing an end to the Great Depression. We often overlook the importance of a Republican Congress when speaking of Clinton’s success at achieving a balanced budget. But perhaps the president whose record best mirrors the Reaganesque incongruity is John F. Kennedy.

I’d go so far as to say that given the polarization of the parties’ viewpoints, Kennedy would never be nominated by today’s Democrats. Imagine how the Paul Krugman types, who have already said that “Obama has embraced and validated the Republican world-view” would respond to some of Kennedy’s economic policies. For instance, in a speech Kennedy game to the Economic Club of New York in 1962, he said,

“[Aiding economic growth] could also be done by increasing federal expenditures more rapidly than necessary, but such a cost would soon demoralize both the government and the economy … The final and best means of strengthening demand among consumers and business is to reduce the burden on private income and the deterrence to private initiative which are imposed by our present tax system.” 

No government stimulus? Lower taxes? Not exactly something the left would coalesce around today. That, more than anything, is the problem.

[See a slide show of 5 reasons Obama is the same as Bush, Clinton.]

Both sides have become wedded to the idea that they are right. Not only that, both sides have become absolutely convinced that the other side’s ideas are wrong. Sadly, I’m not sure either of those statements is absolutely true. I’m not sure most self-identifying Republicans or Democrats even make it to that level of analysis. Today it seems we have accepted that whatever the other party does is wrong, not because we are sure if it is wrong in terms of policy, but because we are sure it is wrong because the other side is saying it.

It is a plague on both sides of the aisle. Democrats seem content to brush off the worries over the national debt despite a worldwide acknowledgement of the danger debt poses to the global economy. Republicans dismiss any good that the stimulus may have done, choosing instead to focus on the total number of jobs lost. Agreement doesn’t win elections, distinctions do. But when they grow out of control, when we lose our ability to understand that we are working towards a common goal, the system breaks down.

In trying to solve today’s problems, reasoned debate, a thorough understanding of both sides of the argument, and a willingness to ignore the letter beside someone’s name will be necessary. Ronald Reagan perhaps said it best, “somebody who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is an 80 percent friend not a 20 percent enemy.” Hopefully in our attempts to purify the Reagan mythology his big tent philosophy will not be forgotten.