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Here’s to the Gipper

Adam Newman | Tuesday, November 5, 2013

It sometimes amazes me that Ronald Reagan, who famously played George “Gipper” Gipp in “Knute Rockne, All American” and who has been out of presidential office for 25 years, has become the modern-day hero of the Republican Party. This has become even more true as the party has lurched to the right over the past few years. The issue is that many Republican politicians and media figures forget that positions they oppose today are ones Reagan once held.
1. Reagan increased deficits:
One of the greatest myths about Reagan was that he was a fiscal conservative (someone who believes in a balanced budget). The average deficit from 1946 to 1980 ran approximately one percent of gross domestic product (GDP), based on data from the Office of Management and Budget. However, between 1981 and 1989, when Reagan was in office, the average budget deficit was 4.1 percent. Some of the early deficits were caused by the recession that lasted from July 1981 through November 1982. But even as the economy grew, the deficit exploded due to Reagan’s tax cuts and defense spending increases. This increased the national debt (the total of all past deficits) in Reagan’s presidency from $1 trillion to $3 trillion. Thus, referring to Reagan as a fiscal conservative is like saying Bernie Madoff was an ethical businessman.
2. Reagan raised taxes:
Reagan is known for his large tax cut in 1981 that cut individual and corporate rates while also increasing tax exclusions and deductions. While applauded by many, these cuts created huge deficits. In response, Reagan signed tax increases into law in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. Reagan increased payroll taxes (1983), ended loopholes (1984, 1986 and 1987), and ended the gasoline tax (1982) and cigarette tax (1985). The phrase “the goal is simple and just: to see to it that everyone pays his fair share,” sounds very similar to what President Obama and congressional Democrats have pushed for in recent years. However, this statement was made by President Reagan in August 1982 when describing why he signed tax increases into law.
3. Reagan signed immigration reform:
Perhaps what Reagan is least known for is signing into law comprehensive immigration reform that granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. As Reagan said in a presidential debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, “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.” Once again, this sounds very similar to the language used by Democrats in the immigration debate.
Many forget that Reagan was once a governor of California, a state with a major influx of undocumented immigrants. Reagan was forced to deal with the undocumented population and understood how having an immigration system that brought people out of the shadows was not just humane, but could help grow the economy as well.
4. Reagan compromised:
Underlying all of this is the simple fact that Reagan could compromise with the opposition. Reagan faced a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats during his eight years in office and a Democratic Senate for his last two years. Reagan knew that, as president, he could not ignore the opposition, but rather, had to work with them.
As Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, once shared, “President Reagan wanted to succeed, and he knew that to succeed in politics, particularly with a Democratic Congress, he would have to compromise. He said to me many times, ‘I would much prefer to get 80 percent of what I want than to go off the cliff with the flag flying.'”
The truth is that Reagan was a much different person than the ultra-conservative, ultra-partisan politician that ideologues paint him as today. Rather, Reagan was a pragmatic politician who understood that one should always compromise when necessary on policy, but never compromise on values. If only today’s Republicans could more emulate the man Reagan was than the man they imagine him to have been, America would be much closer to Reagan’s vision of a shining city on a hill.

   Adam Newman is a senior studying political science. He can be reached at anewman3@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.