February 20, 2006


Reagan vs. Dubya: A size of government contest (W. James Antle III, February 20, 2006, Enter Stage Right)

While Bush has amassed deficits of a greater absolute size, Reagan’s average deficit was larger as a percentage of GDP, peaking at 6.3 percent in 1983. During the Reagan years, the federal budget surpassed $1 trillion for the first time—rapidly closing in on $2.8 trillion today—and the national debt more than doubled. Although federal revenues increased despite lower marginal income tax rates, as the supply-siders predicted, federal spending grew even faster.

It’s also worth noting that as bad as Bush has been on spending—proposing expensive new programs, endorsing government growth and refusing to impose discipline on profligate appropriators—Congress has often been worse. The GOP majority hasn’t been reluctant to outspend the president’s budget proposals.

Both these caveats should raise red flags. First, the deficits of the 1980s and early ‘90s seriously undermined the Reagan project. The red ink was used to paint a caricature of tax cuts as irresponsible fiscal policy and eventually marginal tax rates crept up to 39.6 percent. Even after almost annual tax cuts from the Bush administration, the top rate is still higher than when Bill Clinton took office.

FEDERAL INCOME TAXES, AS A SHARE OF GDP, DROP TO LOWEST LEVEL SINCE 1942, ACCORDING TO FINAL BUDGET DATA: Erosion of income tax base drives other key budget developments (Isaac Shapiro, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)
The final budget figures for fiscal year 2003 were released on October 20 by the Treasury Department. They indicate that income tax receipts (including receipts from both the individual and corporate income tax) equaled just 8.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This is the lowest level of income tax collections, as a share of the economy, since 1942.

W is who they think Reagan was.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 20, 2006 9:46 AM

Over on the NRO Corner, they're coming up with all sorts of hilarious "reasons" that Reagan was more conservative than Bush. Jonah says Reagan talked a better game, Stuttaford blames Bush for tax hikes that haven't happened yet, Derbyshire brings up Harriet Miers (remember her?) and Ponnuru says deficits don't matter.

Really funny stuff. But Reagan is a saint on the Corner, and you better not breathe a word of criticism against him. Of course, twenty years from now the NRO Corner (or whatever it's called) will be talking up Bush as the "true conservative" vs. whatever GOPer happens to occupy the White House.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 10:21 AM


Meanwhile, Reagan raised taxes several times, saved SS forever, gave them both O'Connor and Kennedy--who they hate--and was likewise unconcerned by deficits. Of course, to match Reagan on foreign policy W would have to attend a summit with al Qaeda....

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 10:29 AM

See what trying to please your liberal friends will get you. This is all about the Cornerites making themselves look "reasonable" to those who most certainly would not be "reasonable" to them.

Posted by: Brad S at February 20, 2006 10:34 AM


No, it isn't. It's about the Corner not understanding either Reagan or Bush.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 10:39 AM

To give the Corner its due, Podhoretz did bring up the unpleasant (to most Cornerites) facts about how Bush has been more fiscally conservative than Reagan. Nobody's bothered to refute his argument, because facts - as Reagan liked to say - are stubborn things.

It is funny how the Cornerites' responses to Podhoretz' heresy have been so weak. I really had to laugh when Stuttaford - who's usually whining about his stinking, er, smoking sections getting eliminated - blamed Bush for the yet-to-occur actions of his successors. Right, Andrew. And Reagan's to blame for Clinton chasing Monica, too.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 10:48 AM


As far as the Cornerites not understanding Reagan, all they have to do is comb through NR's back issues to find where they criticized Dutch on economic policy, for one.

They understand him, and are will to airbrush certain things about Reagan in order to criticize W. All in order to show the left that NR, too, can "grow."

Posted by: Brad S at February 20, 2006 12:00 PM

Intellectual honesty compels me to admit that Ponnuru may be having second thoughts. Ramesh is the smartest guy on the Corner, and he knows how weak Reagan's record as a fiscal conservative is. He can't ignore the big tax hikes and the bigger spending increases. So he just put up a long comment that conservative voters in general aren't all that fiscally conservative any more.

One of these days Ramesh will get up the gumption to say what he knows to be true...that Reagan wasn't all that fiscally conservative, either.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 12:40 PM

Grow in newspeak means move left.

Posted by: erp at February 20, 2006 12:45 PM

Part of The Corner's testiness is due to the difference between criticizing an elder versus going after a peer. Along with their own WFB Jr., Reagan is the other major icon of the conservative right, and the one who led it from its darkest days of 1964 into a governing majority. So like Buckley's occassional forays into deep water that are glossed over, Reagan's failings are given a pass.

Bush they see as not much different than them, and in some cases (where northeastern elitism creeps in) as a lesser person. In that way, they buy into the Democrats line that only his name got him where he is today (nevermind he had to get re-elected twice), which therefore makes it way easier to criticize his actions minus any context, such as the deficit's percentage of GDP or the nomination of a southwestern rubette like Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

Posted by: John at February 20, 2006 12:48 PM

In some cases the condescension towards Bush is explicit. Derbyshire thinks Bush is an idiot, for instance, and hasn't been shy about saying so. Stuttaford probably thinks the same, but he's a little more cautious. He probably doesn't want the hate e-mail, which Derbyshire has admitted lands on him whenever he rips Bush.

Jonah is tough to figure on the issue, because he usually dodges behind a quip or three. My guess is that he respects Bush's political smarts but doesn't think much of his general IQ. K-Lo probably holds Bush in the highest esteem, followed by Podhoretz.

As usual, Ponnuru sees all sides. That's why he's tempering the "deficits don't matter" silliness he posted over the weekend to "prove" Reagan was somehow fiscally conservative. Ponnuru knows that Reagan unleashed a tide of red ink that sweeps away anything Bush has done. And he probably knows that Bush is smarter than Reagan, too. It's just hard to talk such heresy on the Corner.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 1:07 PM

Ponnoru made the valid point that under Dubya, federal spending as a proportion of GDP (excluding defence) has crept upwards while it fell during Reagan's time.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at February 20, 2006 1:48 PM

Even that point is bogus because Bush has been spending less as a percentage of GDP than Reagan did. And, of course, Bush hasn't jacked up taxes as Reagan did (twice) and has run smaller deficits as a percentage of GDP. By whatever measure - spending, taxes, deficits - Bush is more fiscally conservative than Reagan.

Now let me disclaim a few things. I'm not a fiscal conservative myself. In fact, I think both Reagan and Bush did a fine job with the economy after horrendous disasters - Jimmy Carter and 9/11. In fact, that's why they both got re-elected.

But as to which guy was more fiscally conservative, there is no contest. Reagan spent more, raised taxes and ran deficits that were significantly larger. (Again as a percentage of GDP, which is the only fair measure.)

Ponnuru knows all this, which is why he's hemming and hawing about his "deficits don't matter" squib over the weekend.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 2:19 PM

Reagan had a Democratic Congress to placate.

Given the conservative movement's success in the past two decades, Dubya's had considerably more scope to take an axe to various government functions.

Granted political pressure from the gang of lobbying interest groups is considerably greater than that of small-governmenters, but there simply hasn't been much executive initiative taken to ratchet back spending.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at February 20, 2006 2:32 PM

Reagan had a GOP Senate for six of his eight years, and a working conservative majority in the House for all eight years. He put no significant dent in federal spending at all.

Which is fine with me. With the very tough monetary policy Volcker used to kill inflation, Reagan HAD to run big deficits and spend, spend, spend. Otherwise, the economy would have tipped into an even more severe recession than it actually experienced in 1981-82.

But a fiscal conservative Reagan was not. (Thank God, in my opinion.) And the attempts to make him into one will not withstand any scrutiny of the numbers.

Finally, the attempt to section off spending into "good" (military, I guess) and "bad" (everything else, it seems) is the lamest try to make Reagan into something he was not. From a true fiscal conservative's standpoint, spending is spending is spending. And Reagan spent more than Bush has as a percentage of GDP. It's not even that close.

Not to mention Reagan's tax hikes and deficits. Oh, I just mentioned them. Sorry, but any even-handed historian considering the issue will mention them, too.

Posted by: Casey Abell at February 20, 2006 2:47 PM

"With the very tough monetary policy Volcker used to kill inflation, Reagan HAD to run big deficits and spend, spend, spend. Otherwise, the economy would have tipped into an even more severe recession than it actually experienced in 1981-82."

That's interesting.

Anybody here with a background in Econ who can comment on this?

Was the Reagan-era spending a good thing for the economy?

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at February 20, 2006 3:15 PM

Considering, at the time, that the 81-82 recession eviscerated our manufacturing capability, the massive defense spending increase greatly helped the economy.

What we're trying to say, Ali, is that Reagan was forced into choices not too asimilar than the ones W was forced into. The only difference is that you've got a bunch of misguided Reagan fetishists (yes, I'm talking to you, Cornerites!) who want to tell you differently. Both men must be judged on their own separate terms and conditions.

Posted by: Brad S at February 20, 2006 3:28 PM

We just don't spend much money outside of entitlements and Defense.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 3:47 PM


Excluding defense? So it's meaningless. The Right are just poverty pimps for Defense the same way the Left is for Welfare.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 3:52 PM


Derbyshire just hates him because W isn't a racist, no?

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 4:00 PM

Which reminds me: does Andrew Sullivan now have to be tounge-in-cheek when he lists his Derbyshire Award Winners, since he and John both have their keyboards zeroed in on Bush (albeit from different directions).

Posted by: John at February 20, 2006 5:26 PM

Same direction in a lot of ways.

Posted by: oj at February 20, 2006 5:40 PM