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The Conservative Critique of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan may be a conservative icon, but he wasn’t a perfect conservative.

Ronald Reagan is every conservative’s favorite president. However, while he was an incredible spokesman for conservatism, he had a few shortcomings.  President Reagan even took progressive positions on a number of issues.

Reagan raised the corporate tax rate.  Conservatives today rail against high corporate taxes, and rightly so.  Corporate taxes are detrimental to businesses all across the United States.  High corporate taxes cost people jobs and raise prices on consumers, yet President Reagan raised the corporate tax rate.  He didn’t raise it by a small amount either.  In fact, it was the largest increase of the corporate tax rate in history.  Mr. Reagan’s intentions were to get closer to balancing the budget; however, he should have scaled back government programs before raising taxes.

Reagan raised the capital gains tax rate.  The Tax Reform Act of 1986 raised the maximum rate of long-term capital gains to 28% from 20%.  Mr. Reagan’s intentions behind the tax increase will remain ambiguous for the foreseeable future. Regardless of this, raising the capital gains tax was not a conservative move.  The budget maneuver did help keep federal revenue from plummeting, which brought the budget closer to a balance. Maybe, therefore, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world given the circumstances, but that doesn’t make it “conservative.”

Reagan supported amnesty.  “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” President Reagan said in a 1984 televised debate with Walter Mondale during his re-election campaign.  Today, most Republicans are very much opposed to any kind of “amnesty.”  In fact, the word is probably considered derogatory.  But Mr. Reagan wasn’t a man who merely said things – he was a man who did things.  And in this case, unholy things.  The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants.  The bill was supposed to increase border security as well, closing opportunities for more illegal immigrants to flood across the borders.  However, this never happened, and the amnesty bill actually increased the incentive for people to come into the country illegally.

Reagan nearly tripled the national debt.  By the end of Reagan’s tenure as president, the national debt had tripled.  It’s a problem faced by many Republican presidents who look to increased military spending while also cutting taxes.  They rationalize this by also proposing to cut spending on welfare and massive government programs; however, this rarely happens in practice.  President Reagan was no exception.  He inherited a $90 billion deficit from Jimmy Carter, but instead of the deficit being reduced, it increased to $144 billion in 1982, and $235 billion in 1983.  This pattern continued for the duration of his presidency, accumulating a total of $1.86 trillion added to the national debt.

Reagan did little to reform or reduce welfare. When it came to welfare, the President was all bark and no bite.  From the time he became a conservative after an early life spent as a Democrat, to the end of his two-term presidency, Mr. Reagan railed against welfare.  “I believe the best social program is a job,” President Reagan once famously said.  “Welfare’s purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence,” he remarked also.  However, President Reagan did little to cut back welfare.  Medicare and Medicaid were reduced by only a small percentage, falling well below the mark for what was needed to make up for previous increases from progressive presidents.

Reagan advocated gun control.  This may be the most disappointing stance for many conservatives. “I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense.  But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”  Conservatives, of course, would argue that Americans do need access to these high-firepower weapons to protect against government tyranny, the main purpose behind the Second Amendment.  In 1994, President Reagan co-signed a letter to congress with former Presidents Carter and Ford advocating gun control measures.  The measure was opposed by Mr. Reagan’s successor and former Vice President, George H. W. Bush.

All of this aside, Mr. Reagan has been among the most conservative Presidents of modern times.  President Reagan, at least in part, is responsible for producing a generation of conservative thinkers.  He was able to articulate conservatism’s most appealing qualities in a way that few had been able to do before.  Mr. Reagan did have flaws, but, fortunately, they were few and far between.  Writing a conservative critique on a president like Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, would be equivalent in length to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Apart from his deficiencies, “The Gipper” destroyed communism, ended the Cold War, revitalized a struggling U.S. economy, and built a lasting conservative movement.

Alex Baltzegar is a contributor at Merion West, where he writes about American politics. His columns generally address issues of particular interest to Merion West’s more conservative readers. Originally from California, Alex now lives in North Carolina.

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