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What Would Reagan Do?

By and / 7.18.2011

Guess who said this:

“The full consequences of a default – or even the serious prospect of default – by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar.”

President Obama? Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner? No, Ronald Reagan, in a 1983 letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. And yet GOP Sen. Jim DeMint called Geithner a “Chicken Little” for issuing an almost identical warning against undermining America’s global creditworthiness.

The Republicans have come a long way since Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office – and it’s mostly been downhill.

Winning no prizes for statesmanship is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who argues that it’s more important to prevent the government from raising a penny more in tax revenue than to prevent it from going bankrupt and defaulting on its debts. He says Republicans are making a major concession to Obama just by considering his request to raise the debt ceiling.

The Gipper must be rolling in his grave. Unlike Cantor, he didn’t worry that doing his public duty might be construed as a favor to his political opponents. Reagan was no fan of higher taxes either, but he manned up and raised them when that became necessary to corral federal deficits and restore fiscal responsibility.

What would Reagan do today? The best way to answer that is to look at what he actually did do as president.

First, Reagan pushed through the giant 1981 tax cut that marked America’s first misbegotten experiment with supply side economics. Whatever stimulative effect it may have had was soon overwhelmed by Fed Chairman Paul Volker’s decision to raise interest rates to wring inflation out of the economy. America suffered a harrowing recession in 1982, and federal deficits exploded.

Reagan urged the nation to “stay the course,” but on taxes he changed course. In 1982, when unemployment stood at 10.1 percent, he signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which increased taxes by around one percent of GDP. Irate conservatives blamed the baleful influence of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. A young GOP backbencher and bombthrower, Newt Gingrich, famously called Dole “the tax collector of the welfare state.”

That was something of a bad rap, however, since Reagan ended up raising taxes a total of 11 times during his presidency. Unlike today’s Republicans, he believed fiscal discipline was more important than supply side theories and he understood that compromise is crucial to advancing national interests. In his second term, Reagan embraced a Democratic proposal to broaden the tax base by closing loopholes, and use the savings to bring rates down. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 simplified the tax code by drastically reducing the number of deductions and the number of tax brackets.

Reagan’s determination to not let deficits get too far out of hand continued under his successor. President George H.W. Bush even broke his “read my lips” pledge in 1990, pushing a deficit reduction package that cut spending by $324 billion and raised revenues by $159 billion over five years. Many conservatives were apoplectic, but Bush’s brave move helped put America on track toward the budget surpluses that President Bill Clinton achieved in the late 1990s.

Tea Party Republicans reject that legacy – even though it led to the balanced budget they are now loudly demanding. As conservative NYT columnist David Brooks wrote recently, that’s a radical departure from the party’s tradition of fiscal rectitude as well as the political give and take that makes democratic politics work.

It’s also repudiation of Reagan, the man conservatives love to venerate and name airports after but, as it turns out, honor in the breach when it comes to protecting the full faith and credit of the United States.

Photo Credit: Brett Tatman