The shadow of Ronald Reagan hovers over the conservative Republican revolt against President Bush, with hard-core conservatives saying Bush does not measure up to the standard set by their hero. In fact, one disgusted conservative, commentator Bruce Bartlett, has just penned a book called Imposter: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.
But, if you study the records of these two Presidents, you have to wonder what the hubbub is about. Looking with a “Reagan-esque” eye at basic issues of taxes, spending, and the size of government, you would conclude Bush is no worse than Reagan and in some ways a lot better. Consider:
Nothing unites conservative Republicans more than their desire to cut taxes. Moreover, tax increases are not even within the realm of discussion, whether to cut the deficit or to finance new obligations.
Not surprisingly, Bush cut taxes in every year of his first term and is pushing for more. But, while conservatives hate to admit it, Reagan was a far more consistent tax raiser than cutter. After cutting taxes deeply in 1981, he signed bills to raise income, payroll, gas, or other taxes in almost every other year of his term, recouping much of the revenue lost in 1981.
Conservatives complain that federal spending has soared on Bush’s watch. They have a point. From fiscal 2001, when he took office, to 2005, which just ended on September 30, spending has risen from $1.86 trillion to $2.47 trillion, or by an average of just over 7 percent a year.
But Reagan was hardly different. From 1981 to 1989, spending rose from $678 billion to $1.14 trillion, or by an average of just under 7 percent a year. The small difference hardly seems to merit the blistering criticism Bush has faced for abandoning Reaganomics.
Nor do the particulars of federal spending make the conservative case any more compelling. Reagan, the conservatives often tell us, bankrupted the Soviet system by immediately boosting defense spending to levels that made the arms race unsustainable for the Soviets.
The truth is, Reagan’s build-up ended well before left office. In his second term, Congress began to cut defense in inflation-adjusted dollars and as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) – a trend that continued until the current President took office. At the moment, we see no signs of a comparable “build-down” under Bush.
Critics also complain that, while he’s talked about paring entitlements, Bush has acted quite differently. Most prominently, he pushed for, and signed, the largest expansion of Medicare since its founding with the addition of prescription drug coverage.
All true, but guess what? Reagan pushed for, and signed, a catastrophic health insurance bill that, were it not repealed after he left office, would have marked the largest expansion of Medicare to that time. Moreover, after cutting Medicaid in 1981, Reagan signed a series of bills in the 1980s that greatly expanded the program so that, by 1990, it covered all pregnant women and infants with family incomes at or below the poverty line.
Bush’s unwillingness to veto a single spending bill especially rankles the conservatives. But here, too, the differences between Bush and Reagan are trivial.
Of the 13 appropriations bills designed to fund the government every year, Reagan vetoed exactly one in his eight years. While he also vetoed three “supplemental” appropriations and two short-term “continuing resolutions,” he was hardly the whip cracking, anti-spender of conservative lore.
As for the deficit, which also has conservatives boiling, the record to date shines more brightly on Bush than Reagan. Measured as a percentage of GDP, the deficit hit 6 percent once and 5 percent twice under Reagan, and it remained unsolved by the time he left office.
The Bush deficits, while far higher in raw dollars, reached only as high as 3.6 percent of GDP (in 2004) and fell below 3 percent in 2005. The percentages could go much higher in future years, particularly if Congress extends the Bush tax cuts. But, to date, the record favors Bush over Reagan.
From their standpoint, conservatives have reason to complain about Bush. He’s let spending soar, expanded the scope of government with a huge new entitlement, and turned record surpluses into a sea of red ink. But pointing to the Reagan record is no way for them to make their point.