Stephen Colbert had Ted Cruz on his show recently – marking the fourth politician he has interviewed after Jeb Bush, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden. Not surprisingly, when confronted with a conservative candidate, Colbert let his claws out.
He dispensed with the humor and made a point to relentlessly attack Cruz for his inability to compromise by trotting out a favorite technique: the selective interpretation of Ronald Reagan. He pointed out that Reagan agreed to tax increases and provided amnesty for illegal immigrants. Because of these compromises on core conservative priorities, Colbert explained, the Patron Saint of Conservatism would be considered too liberal to be nominated in today’s ultra-right wing Tea Party-infused GOP.
This is not a new charge. It is often repeated by left-wingers, but also by many in media and punditry. Even some Republicans have repeated this charge. Selecting Reagan’s compromises on taxation and immigration as evidence of the current GOP’s extremity is quite puzzling given the historical context. Reagan was still by far a net tax cutter, and his comprehensive immigration plan, if anything, highlights the failures of amnesty and the importance of persistent employment restrictions and border control.
Some critics go even further – depending on the debate they are trying to win, when they are not charging that Reagan was a hypocrite who actually grew the government, they are claiming that he was willing to compromise on core tenants of his small government philosophy in an admirable, if not useful, way. They will typically do this by citing the overall growth in federal spending in the 1980s. Let’s look at some graphs, with data provided by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“See,” your hypothetical liberal friend might tell you. “Reagan was a [phony/gifted compromiser] who increased the size of the government to unprecedented levels. Federal spending nearly tripled from $591 billion in 1980 to 1.7 trillion in 1989.”
Indeed, spending did increase in absolute terms, but this does not account for inflation or the beloved Growth Fairy that Republicans today consistently factor into their tax plans as a core assumption. Instead let’s look at how he impacted the growth of government spending and spending as a percentage of GDP.
The above figures present both bright spots and hard truths about Reagan’s time in office. He was modestly successful in staving off the continued growth of government, to be sure. The average rate of federal growth was 12% during the Carter years and 8% under Reagan. This is no easy feat given that the federal government is basically designed to continue growing automatically and indefinitely.
In our modern political discourse, spending cuts are measured relative to a benchmark rate of spending growth – such that simply cutting the rate of government spending growth is treated by supporters of big government as a “crippling cut” to spending.
Still, this does not amount to a dramatic decrease in the size of government. Federal spending only saw a minor decrease as a percentage of GDP – from 21.6% in 1981 to 20.5% in 1989. By contrast, the average was 19.4% in the 1970s.
There is no doubt that coming into office during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression (so far) and inheriting higher growth rates of government spending did not help. Had the economy taken longer to recover or spending growth rates stayed the same, government spending likely would have ballooned even larger.
Of course, not all government spending is equal, and politicians never adjust a budget by growing all programs or slashing them all at an equal rate. Below is a visualization of different budget priorities during the Reagan years.
Reagan’s biggest cuts fell on domestic non-entitlement spending programs. These fell from 36.3% of the budget in 1981 to 34% in 1989, reaching a low of 31.7% in 1987. Defense predictably grew, given Reagan’s priority of confronting the Soviets, an area in which history has deemed him victorious. Spending on defense, veteran’s affairs, and foreign affairs grew from 30.1% of the budget in 1981 to 31.3% in 1989, reaching a height of 33.5% in 1987.
Spending in Social Security and the Department of Health and Human Services (which includes Medicare and Medicaid) grew mostly consistently from 33.6% in 1981 to 34.8% in 1989, although entitlement spending is considered “mandatory” by law, and it takes an act of Congress to overhaul that spending. Again, note how many of the mechanisms of big government are automatic and self-sustaining.
Overall we can certainly thank Reagan for slowing the growth of government in the context of a large recession and the fast-growing spending of the 1970s. But why could he not have done more? His election represented the rejection of a political consensus that had endured since the New Deal and had sprouted the Great Society – that government was meant to play a larger role in the managing the economy and engineering society. Reagan frequently spoke out against this trend, saying as president that the Great Society had wrecked the economy and created a renewed, if subtle, threat of government tyranny masked by good intentions.
He even promised to abolish federal departments like the new Departments of Education and Energy. However, these plans never came to fruition. As significant as Reagan’s electoral victory was and as influential as his history legacy continues to be, he was not able to make a dent in the government expansions of the past 50 years.
Congress was a constant obstacle to his budget plans – it was almost always controlled by the Democrats during his two terms, and even when the Republicans briefly held the Senate during his first term, there was a significant liberal wing to the party that would not cooperate.
Reagan was able to achieve his significant tax and spending cuts in part because of his personal popularity, his electoral mandate, the recovering economy, and a failed assassination attempt. Those were still weighty accomplishments in and of themselves, even if they didn’t represent the political revolution many conservatives had hoped for.
So returning to the original charge, is it true that Reagan would not be nominated president in today’s GOP? Reagan is still more conservative than every Republican presidential nominee since he left office, so he would not lose the nomination because of a credible challenge from the right most likely. Yet he is slightly less conservative than the average Republican Congressman in the 113th Congress by this measure.
Does this mean today’s Republican Party is more right wing than Reagan? Maybe so, but given the only modest successes of Reagan in shrinking the government, this might be exactly what the GOP needs. The enduring impact of the Reagan Revolution has been the rightward shift of American political culture.
Bill Clinton was the first Democrat elected after 12 years of Republican rule, and he did so by becoming a “Third Way” Democrat who would eventually proclaim “the era of Big Government is over.” After the Republican Revolution of 1994, the GOP took over Congress with a more conservative caucus and worked with Clinton to balance the budget and establish major welfare reforms.
Unfortunately the Bush years saw government grow at a faster pace, and President Obama, who aspires to be the Progressive Reagan, may have shifted America’s political discourse back to the left. Still, today’s Congressional Republicans are more conservative than any other time in post war America, and the GOP has the most power at the federal, state, and local level since the 1920s.
If a conservative is elected in 2016, Democrats will surely castigate him or her as an extremist surpassing Reagan in anti-government zeal. But the GOP should not fear, as this would be the best chance to fulfill the promise of the Reagan Revolution and fundamentally restore this country to its small government, Constitutional roots.