Jeff Jacoby does good work as the only conservative holding down the fort at the Boring Broadsheet, aka the Boston Globe. I don’t mean to single him out for something I’ve seen quite a few pro-McCain conservatives do, albeit less succinctly. But Jacoby’s conservative case for John McCain does a disservice to Ronald Reagan:
Conservatives bristle at the thought of a Republican president who might raise income and payroll taxes. Or enlarge the federal government instead of shrinking it. Or appoint Supreme Court justices who are anything but strict constructionists. Or grant a blanket amnesty to millions of illegal aliens.
Now, I don’t believe that a President McCain would do any of those things. But President Reagan did all of them. Reagan also provided arms to the Khomeini theocracy in Iran, presided over skyrocketing budget deficits, and ordered US troops to cut and run in the face of Islamist terror in the Middle East. McCain would be unlikely to commit any of those sins, either.
Reagan wasn’t perfect but let’s at least provide some needed historical context here. Yes, Reagan went along with some tax increases. But he was also a significant net tax cutter. The top marginal income tax rate was slashed from 70 percent to 28 percent under his watch. The number of tax brackets was cut from 14 to two, the closest we’ve ever come to a flat tax in this country. Reagan also cut many domestic spending programs, though not by a large or enduring enough amount to keep the federal government from growing during his administration. But the feds’ bite on the economy was lower when he left office and the deficit had been cut to 2.9 percent of GDP.
On the Supreme Court, only Sandra Day O’Connor was an unforced error. And even O’Connor moved the court marginally to the right compared with her predecessor. In 1987, Reagan first tried to appoint Robert Bork, then Douglas Ginsburg, and had received numerous assurances that his eventual nominee, Anthony Kennedy, was actually a conservative.
It’s also worth noting that Reagan’s failures, instead of pointing the way to a more pragmatic conservatism illustrate mistakes for future Republican officeholders to avoid. Reagan’s deficit spending eroded supported for his tax cuts, as did the payroll tax hikes. The Reagan tax increases did not result in a balanced budget. The Reagan amnesty did not reduce illegal immigration and accompanying employer sanctions were never enforced. The Iran-Contra scandal hobbled Reagan’s second term.
Has McCain really learned from all these mistakes? McCain has favored legalizing an even larger number of illegal immigrants, under only slightly stricter conditions than the 1986 amnesty, with the same assumption that better enforcement will follow. His position the Bush tax cuts is well known, and he figures to be influenced as much by the Concord Coalition as Jack Kemp on fiscal policy.
McCain was one of the supporters of withdrawing from Lebanon (he and Reagan were right about this, in my view — the correct answer would have been not to intervene there in the first place without regard to our national interests and under such ridiculous rules of engagement). He backed the O’Connor and Kennedy nominations.
McCain’s supporters should find another way to talk up their candidate besides talking down Reagan. And they should offer a more inspiring conservative agenda than repeating the Gipper’s mistakes.