Sunday, February 7 , 2016, 1:19 am | Fair 45º

Joe Conason: Did Reagan Raise Taxes? Let GOP Candidates Answer

Republicans refuse to believe it, but the real history is that the former president did compromise

By Joe Conason |

Politicians and their flacks lie every day, but it’s unusual for someone prominent to utter a totally indefensible falsehood like the whopper that just sprang from the mouth of Rep. Eric Cantor’s press secretary on national television.

While interviewing the House majority leader, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl suggested that he might consider compromise because even President Ronald Reagan had raised taxes several times. Cantor’s flack then burst out in protest, saying he couldn’t allow her remark “to stand.”

The premise of Stahl’s perceptive question was perfectly accurate, of course. But the rude Hill staffer is scarcely alone in promoting this super-sized lie about Reagan’s tax purity. And it would be worth discovering which of the Republican candidates likewise reject a fundamental truth about their party and its idol.

That video exchange is revealing for several reasons, not least because it shows Cantor trying to suggest that he was always willing to “cooperate” with President Barack Obama and the Democrats during the current session of Congress. The public’s distaste for the obstructionism spearheaded by Cantor and supported by the Tea Party faction is evident in polling data, which may well worry the ambitious Cantor, who almost openly hopes to depose Speaker John Boehner.

The argument began when Stahl asked, “What’s the difference between compromise and cooperate?”

Cantor replied: “Well, I would say cooperate is let’s look to where we can move things forward where we agree. Compromising principles, you don’t want to ask anybody to do that. That’s who they are as their core being.”

Then Stahl noted, “But you know, your idol, as I’ve read anyway, was Ronald Reagan. And he compromised.”

Cantor retorted, “He never compromised his principles.” And Stahl recalled, “Well, he raised taxes, and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.”

“Well, he — he also cut taxes,” bumbled Cantor, a moment before his press secretary blurted from off camera: “That just isn’t true. And I don’t want to let that stand.”

Over a rolling image of Reagan announcing his 1982 tax increase — sometimes described as the largest tax hike in American history — Stahl notes, a bit mischievously: “There seemed to be some difficulty accepting the fact that even though Ronald Reagan cut taxes, he also pushed through several tax increases, including one in 1982 during a recession,” as Reagan intones, “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.”

In fact, Reagan compromised on many issues, including an agreement negotiated with the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to improve the solvency of Social Security for the past several decades. As Timothy Noah explained cogently in The New Republic (and not for the first time), Reagan repeatedly raised taxes in the years following the gigantic, budget-busting 1981 tax cut. Noah quotes former White House and Treasury official Bruce Bartlett, who served under Reagan and wrote a paper last year on “Reagan’s Forgotten Tax Record,” demonstrating beyond any doubt that the GOP icon raised taxes at least 10 times during his two terms as president and also during his governorship of California. In that paper, Bartlett destroys the mythology of Reagan, which has been made concrete by the right-wing activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist with the “anti-tax” pledge signed by most Republican politicians.

It is understandable that Republican presidential aspirants, including the present crop, would seek to associate themselves with Reagan, a formidable leader who was often underestimated by Democrats. It is understandable, too, that they would emphasize the aspects of his career that appeal to their constituents, and elide the painful episodes of compromise and even disaster that marred his presidency. But in an election year when every Republican candidate has vowed to refuse any compromise on taxes that will reduce future deficits, the urge to erase history and distort facts must be exposed over and over again — because the lies are so often repeated by right-wing pundits and politicians.

The real history: Reagan was forced to raise taxes because his cuts didn’t “pay for” themselves, as the mythology also insists — and he didn’t raise taxes enough to avoid a legacy of deficits that only President Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase on the top tier began to remedy. President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, like Reagan’s, set the nation on its current fiscal path, worsened by his multitrillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq. When the Republicans debate again, someone ought to test whether they will acknowledge those basic facts — or whether they will insist on the “big lies” of Republican fiscal stewardship.

Joe Conason writes for Creators Syndicate. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

» on 01.06.12 @ 07:23 AM

I always knew that there was some reason that I voted for Reagan.

» on 01.06.12 @ 12:45 PM

Funny…I can’t find the part that he was promised if he raised taxes, that the Democrats would cut spending and of course, as they always do, they lied.  Didn’t he also say it was one of his mistakes…trusting them?

» on 01.06.12 @ 02:28 PM

First it’s getting very tiring listening and reading articles and comments by partisans accusing the other side of things they are guilt of. Joe, all politicians lie. Joe, all politicians make mistakes. Joe, all politicians say one thing do another and change their mind, all of them. Hell Joe so do you, so do I and so do those who comment as well.

So what then is your point since your argument is that Reagan raised taxes and those who say otherwise are liars? Is that raising taxes is good? If so, why Joe? Explain to your reading public why you think having the government take more money out of the economy to spend on non productive services is a good thing when we are already, as a sovereign nation, some $70 trillion in debt which is twice our net worth? What possible good does it do to our total debt, public and private, to continue to borrow money to spend when we clearly do not produce enough wealth to support what we consume now? How is taking someone’s personal wealth help since confiscating all the personal wealth in this country now would only pay for half of what we owe the world?

In the interest of avoiding more useless partisan bickering would it not be much smarter for government to get its big fat clumsy hands out of the cookie jar and instead help our country’s sources of wealth generation make more damned cookies? And by cookies I don’t mean personal fortunes made by investment bankers, brokers and other service providers but actual real intrinsic wealth made by energy production and the labor and intellect of durable goods manufacturing as well as agriculture?

Too much energy is wasted in this country doing stupid useless or meaningless crap that adds no real value and actually consumes more than it makes. The evidence is in our debt and trade deficit. No people just moving crap around doesn’t make value it consumes it. No people wealth transfer doesn’t make value it consumes it. Try and separate your ideological wishes for a private or public economy from the issue of production versus consumption.

» on 01.06.12 @ 06:28 PM

Well, political, business, religious icons tend to serve a much different purpose
than the actual acts of real people.

The morphing of the real Ronald Reagan into the symbolic Reagan a new
generation of conservatives revere is probably not that much different than
the morphing of the actual Washington, Lincoln, either Roosevelt, into how
we regard them now.

Imagine how weird it probably was for rural Judeans 2000 years ago, for them
to hear how the brief ministry of Jesus had been spun around, as his teachings
went world-wide, and the tales spun by those who had never met him grew and

The real Reagan was neither as awful a governor or president as his enemies
feared, nor as staunch and dogmatic a free-market conservative as his allies
had hoped.

What he was was mostly a friendly, funny, open, practical guy, who truly wanted
California and America to prosper and be safe within a sphere of limited government. The latter was something he talked about a lot, but never achieved.

» on 01.06.12 @ 09:04 PM

Ya Publius, an astute observation, funny how things aren’t nearly as exciting when we leave the hyperbole alone though.

» on 01.09.12 @ 12:27 AM

Cut the crap. Reagan lowered the top marginal rate from 70% to 28%. No President before and after has lowered taxes as much as him. The greatest President of my lifetime by far.

» on 01.09.12 @ 03:39 PM

Ronald Reagan sold advanced US armaments to the Iranian government.

I’ll never forget that.

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