A CPAC attendee wearing a Ronald Reagan mask.
Republicans sure love to talk about Ronald Reagan. Just look at some of these quotes from the Conservative Political Action Conference last week:
"Once again, the GOP is where the action is, just as it was in Jack Kemp's day at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution." - Congressman Paul Ryan (WI)
"It's time for the Republican Party to stop talking about Ronald Reagan and start acting like him." - Senator Mike Lee (UT)
"We need to turn this country around. We did it in 1980 with the grassroots movement that became the Reagan Revolution and, let me tell ya, the same thing is happening all over today." - Senator Ted Cruz (TX)
If that isn't proof enough...
Is this hero worship justified? Here are ten facts about Ronald Reagan that many in the GOP have awkwardly forgotten:
1. Reagan fought against civil rights for African Americans.
MLK Jr. during a press conference in 1964.
Reagan's transformation from actor to serious political figure began in the 1960s, first with a nationally televised speech on behalf of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and then with his election as governor of California. This was also the decade in which the civil rights bills that ended legalized racism were passed ... and Reagan was on record opposing all of them, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Reagan continued this pattern as president by gutting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), fighting the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoing the Civil Rights Restoration Act (which required all recipients of federal funds to comply with civil rights laws) and initially opposing the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (he changed his tune when it passed Congress with a veto-proof majority).
2. Reagan vetoed an anti-apartheid bill.
Reagan further tarnished his record on racial equality when he vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed economic sanctions on South Africa that could only be lifted when that country abolished apartheid. Although Reagan argued this was because he worried the sanctions would prompt the South African government to respond with "more violence and more repression," critics pointed to his administration's close relationship with the apartheid regime, well-known belief that anti-apartheid groups like the African National Congress were Communistic, oversight of the decision to label Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and weakening of a UN resolution condemning apartheid.
Considering that the bill was supported by an overwhelming majority of South African apartheid opponents (including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu), his professed reason was widely met with skepticism. Fortunately, Congress overrode his veto.
3. Reagan supported the exploitation of Mexican-American farm workers.
Cesar Chavez in 1973 visiting Colegio Cesar Chavez, the first four-year Mexican-American college in the United States.
One of the biggest contributors to Reagan's successful gubernatorial campaigns was California's wealthy "agro-business" industry. As such, it was not surprising that the newly-elected governor sided with his political benefactors over Cesar Chavez, who led the movement to end the underpayment and inhumane working conditions endured by over a million Mexican-American farm workers.
Of course, if one wishes to take Reagan at his word, you're left to believe that he supported the use of "stoop laborers" not because his rich buddies profited from this system, but because Mexicans were suitable for that lifestyle due to being "built close to the ground."
4. Reagan actively participated in some of America's most infamous witch hunts against alleged Communists.
Ronald Reagan in 1947 testifying before HUAC.
For a man who loved talking about liberty, Reagan's actions didn't show a particularly high regard for the First Amendment. During his tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild (a labor union for actors), Reagan served as an FBI snitch against members he suspected of Communist sympathies, required all officers to swear a "non-Communist pledge" and testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee against the so-called "Hollywood Ten." Thanks in no small part to his actions, dozens of men and women throughout Hollywood had their careers ruined.
5. Reagan illegally sold weapons to Iran and helped create the Taliban and Osama bin Laden regime.
President Reagan meeting with Afghan Mujahideen leaders in the Oval Office in 1981.
In order to curtail the Soviet Union's influence over Central Asia, Reagan financed, armed, and trained Islamofascist mujahideen in Afghanistan. Along with costing billions of dollars, this policy advanced the career of a mujahidin commander named Osama bin Laden and led to the emergence of the Taliban.
Reagan exacerbated matters by continuing the war after the USSR's retreat, which helped bring about bin Laden's ascendancy in the region. Even worse, Reagan illegally sold weapons to the Iranian government (which had been unfriendly to America since the 1970s) to fund right-wing rebel forces in Nicaragua (leading to the Iran-Contra scandal).
6. Reagan's economic policies caused a spike in unemployment and led to severe income inequality.
Reagan explaining Reaganomics in a televised address.
Although Reagan claimed his sweeping tax cut plan in 1981 would reduce unemployment, it actually had the opposite effect, with unemployment rising by more than 3% (to 10.8%) during the first half of his initial term. Fortunately for him, the economy began to pick up on its own; unfortunately for us, his draconian cuts to social programs, crippling of labor unions, and weakening of legal protections for the working class contributed to the growing income inequality that continues today.
7. Reagan helped kick off the war on women.
'Era Yes' was a movement in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
While Reagan deserves credit for appointing Sandra Day O'Connor as America's first female Supreme Court Justice, his legacy on women's issues is tarnished by his outspoken opposition to abortion rights, appointment of anti-choice judges and successful push to remove support for the Equal Rights Amendment — which would have guaranteed that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex" — from the Republican Party platform.
8. Reagan failed to confront the AIDS epidemic.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt — a celebration of the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes.
It was an open secret that the Reagan administration believed AIDS was "nature's revenge on gay men" (in the words of Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan) and that "they [homosexuals] are only getting what they justly deserve" (according to the account of Reagan's surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, on the attitude of Reagan's advisers).
While Reagan was never caught expressing such venomous attitudes, he refused to address the AIDS epidemic at all until the spring of 1987. By that time, he had only a year-and-a-half left in his presidency ... and AIDS had already more than 20,000 lives, with thousands more suffering from infection.
9. Reagan is directly responsible for increasing American homelessness through his large-scale defunding of mental institutions.
A homeless man in Miami, released from the hospital the day before.
Both as governor and president, Reagan oversaw the massive defunding of mental health institutions. Because many mentally ill individuals have difficulty obtaining and holding down employment, this significantly increased homelessness in America. As of 2009, 20-25% of America's homeless population was severely mentally ill, compared to only 6% of the general population.
10. Reagan added trillions to our national debt in an attempt to redistribute wealth from the poor to both the rich and the military.
The famous national debt clock.
In the forty-eight years before Reagan became president, his eight predecessors increased the national debt by a total of $975 billion. Despite running as a fiscal conservative, Reagan wound up increasing the debt by more than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter combined, adding $1.86 trillion to the pile.
This was because of Reagan's infamous "Voodoo Economics," i.e., the claim that you could cut taxes for the wealthy and expand the military-industrial complex without increasing our national debt. While staunch conservatives were genuinely convinced that the flawed math of "Reaganomics" would somehow work out, others agreed that Reagan's real strategy was to "Starve the Beast."
As Alan Greenspan (Reagan's appointment as Chairman of the Federal Reserve) once put it, "the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending." In short, Reagan's economic advisers were hoping that in order to shrink the size of government, while maintaining military expenditures and low high-bracket tax cuts, Congress would choose to cut programs that benefited lower income Americans over allowing the debt to explode. While they were wrong in that assumption, their argument that lower income citizens should be the ones to suffer to reduce our debt endures to this day.
In sum, we live in the America that Reagan helped create. While many of our presidents have been influential, most scholars agree that Reagan's election in 1980 ushered in a new period in our nation's political history. He pushed the Republican Party to the right on a number of issues, threatened the Democrats' longstanding status as America's dominant party, and left a lasting imprint on both our country and the larger world through his social, economic and foreign policies.
The speakers at CPAC weren't wrong when they said their champion had left an important legacy. To avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, however, we must see that legacy for what it really was, so we don't ever elect another Ronald Reagan.