The Spectacle Blog

Diminishing the Reagan Record to Make Bush Appear Conservative

By on 3.18.11 | 11:37AM

Normally, I wouldn't wade into a dispute between two people who are quite capable of arguing for themselves. But some of what Peter Wehner says in response to Mark Levin about the Reagan record requires a response itself. Wehner argues that George W. Bush stacks up pretty well against Ronald Reagan in the conservatism department.

Let's start with illegal immigration. Levin has excoriated Bush for being weak on illegal immigration - but Reagan, at least by the Levin standard, was far weaker. Reagan, after all, signed a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, something Bush never supported. And in a 1984 campaign debate, Reagan went so far as to say, "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."

This is because Reagan didn't engage in the same semantics about what constituted "amnesty" as Bush did. Bush's "comprehensive immigration reform" would have legalized a much larger number of illegal immigrants than the Reagan amnesty did. The conservatives who supported the 1986 amnesty -- including Pat Buchanan -- could at least claim they didn't know what the consequences would be. Much of the opposition to the Bush amnesty was based on the failures of the Reagan amnesty: the amnesty happened but the promised enforcement never materialized; the amnesty legalized a much larger population than expected; it was rife with fraud; the conditions for legalization proved illusory; there were six subsequent smaller amnesties; illegal immigration increased.

Regarding the Supreme Court, Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia, among the greatest jurists in history. But he also appointed Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, both of whom turned out to be fairly problematic from an originalist perspective. Bush appointed two terrific conservative jurists to the High Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and no O'Connor or Kennedy clones.

Two words go conspicuously unmentioned here: Harriet Miers. Bush had the benefit of a readily identifiable cadre of conservative jurists and lawyers to choose from. Reagan frequently had to guess about a nominee's conservatism. Yet Bush still nominated Miers, to near-universal conservative opposition. Left to his own devices, he may well have given us Justices Miers and Alberto Gonzales rather than Roberts and Alito.

How about taxes? Reagan was the architect of the historic 1981 tax cut, one of the most significant pieces of economic legislation in American history. Bush cut taxes multiple times as well, though the cuts were not nearly as large. At the same time, Reagan, unlike Bush, increased taxes many times during his presidency - including what was then the largest taxincrease in American history (the TEFRA tax).

Reagan did raise some taxes. But the Reagan tax cuts were larger than the Bush tax cuts by just about every measure -- percentage of the economy, percentage of tax cut, dollar amount, etc. The Reagan tax cuts were a key part of a policy mix that ended stagflation. Reagan was a net tax cutter who left the top tax rate lower and the tax code simpler than Bush did.

Bush's tax cuts -- which were still on balance worth supporting -- were littered with Keynesian nonsense in 2001, were paired with massive unfunded spending on both guns and butter that could lead to tax increases in the future, and did not have the same economic impact.

On entitlements, both presidents were failures (though Wehner wants to give his old boss credit for trying and failing on Social Security reform without giving Reagan credit for some of his proposals prior to the payroll tax-hiking commission). Reagan's Medicare expansion was repealed, Bush's is still adding to the entitlement's unfunded liabilities. If Bush had succeeded on Social Security reform, his record would look much different. Finally, on foreign policy I'll simply say that Reagan won an unambiguous victory against a much bigger foe than Bush faced.

My point isn't that everything Reagan did was great or everything Bush did was awful. That clearly wasn't the case. But it interesting that to make Bush seem more conservative, one must either devalue Reagan's accomplishments or take his policies out of context.

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