Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush
My friend Pete Wehner took my criticism of President George W. Bush and some of his most senior staff as a challenge to compare Bush to President Ronald Reagan. Comparing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush is like comparing Margaret Thatcher and John Major. That’s not to put down Bush or Major, both of whom were fine leaders, but they were not the historical figures their former staffers and supporters insist.
Who said? “I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.” Well, those words would never have passed Reagan’s lips. It was infamously said by Bush, in defense of his massive spending spree in the last weeks of his presidency. There’s nothing conservative about it. But it sums up Bush’s lack of confidence in the free market system, and his repeated and excessive use of government intervention in American society.
Bush never claimed to be the conservative Reagan was, nor did he spend his early political career challenging GOP orthodoxy, which, until Reagan won in 1980, was mostly incoherent mush of the Rockefeller-Scranton-Nixon-Ford-Bush/41 kind. George H. W. Bush and other mainstream Republican primary challengers sought to thwart Reagan because, they insisted, his conservatism would be rejected by the voters. Now, Pete insists that as president, Reagan’s record, in virtually all respects, is inferior to George W. Bush’s, in advancing conservative principles. This is not only counter-intuitive, it is factually defective. As I proceed with this discussion, I believe it will become evident.
Some final prefatory thoughts. I’ve noticed since President Bush’s departure, former staffers strain to rewrite his record, particularly respecting spending and his embrace of big-government. Is not Bush proud of his policies? Is not Bush proud of the steps he believed he needed to take to “save the free market?” Most were not forced compromises but actual policies and actions he affirmatively supported. Why is it necessary to insist that Bush was an enthusiastic conservative when, in fact, he was not? I am not exactly sure how his governing philosophy can be defined, but I don’t think it is helpful to his legacy to run from a record which he is proud of. And being defensive about his record is not the same thing as attempting to defend it.
Among the many great things Reagan did included his expansion and strengthening of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, both of which Bush left in a shambles even before he left office. Actually, it wasn’t just Bush, but Bush paid precious little attention to either, which helped the Democrats take the House in the 2006 election and led to a complete electoral debacle in 2008.
The point is that aside from the policy details, which I briefly delve into below, a president can be uplifting, visionary, and legacy-setting. Reagan was all that. This is not to make him a larger-than-life figure, but to accurately put in him context with his successors. Reagan was an articulate and constant advocate of conservatism. Bush was not all that articulate in his public statements, period. And it is too bad. In private, he was engaging and well-spoken. But communication skills matter.
My friend Pete Wehner, the former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives to President Bush, is unimpressed by Reagan’s conservatism but evocative of Bush’s. Let’s take a brief look. First, some important perspective. As u-s-history.com summarizes nicely:
“The late 1970s had witnessed the triumph of Marxist governments in Angola and Nicaragua. El Salvador seemed ready to follow suit. The U.S. had been humiliated by the outcome of the Vietnam War (1975), and the Soviets seemed secure in their unrelenting mission to conquer Afghanistan.
“As a result of Carter Administration policies, the American military was plagued by low morale, low pay, outdated equipment, and practically zero maintenance on what did exist. Important U.S. military personnel were not reenlisting; it just wasn’t worth it to them. In fact, thousands of enlisted men’s families survived on food stamps.
“The U.S. economy was struggling, burdened by seemingly unstoppable inflation. High tax increases and an upward spiral of interest rates were an everyday occurrence for Americans. The United States seemed in an era of limits; the country seemed to be running out of oil, and in practice, U.S. foreign policy had adopted a stance of co-existence with the Soviet Union and China.”
Now, to Pete’s points.
1. Illegal Immigration. Pete writes, in part: “Reagan … 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.’”
Actually, Reagan was pressed by members of Congress in both parties to embrace some form of amnesty. He came up with a plan that was very much like Bush’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform, but involved far less illegal aliens. As then-Attorney General Edwin Meese wrote in 2006, in part:
“President Reagan set out to correct the loss of control at our borders. Border security and enforcement of immigration laws would be greatly strengthened—in particular, through sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants. If jobs were the attraction for illegal immigrants, then cutting off that option was crucial.
“He also agreed with the legislation in adjusting the status of immigrants—even if they had entered illegally—who were law-abiding long-term residents, many of whom had children in the United States. Illegal immigrants who could establish that they had resided in America continuously for five years would be granted temporary resident status, which could be upgraded to permanent residency after 18 months and, after another five years, to citizenship. It wasn’t automatic. They had to pay application fees, learn to speak English, understand American civics, pass a medical exam and register for military selective service. Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors were ineligible.
“If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are pretty much the same provisions included in the Comprehensive Reform Act of 2006, which its supporters claim is not amnesty. In the end, slight differences in process do not change the overriding fact that the 1986 law and the recent Senate legislation both include an amnesty. The difference is that President Reagan called it for what it was.”
However, as Meese also wrote: “The lesson from the 1986 experience is that such an amnesty did not solve the problem. There was extensive document fraud, and the number of people applying for amnesty far exceeded projections. And there was a failure of political will to enforce new laws against employers. After a brief slowdown, illegal immigration returned to high levels and continued unabated, forming the nucleus of today’s large population of illegal aliens. So here we are, 20 years later, having much the same debate and being offered much the same deal.”
My friend Pete is, I believe, a Burkean, or at least an admirer of Burke. The point being that despite the 1986 law and its failure, Bush proceeded to quadruple down on Reagan’s amnesty with an even more dramatic and thorough amnesty bill, even though the experience and knowledge gained from the 1986 law should have informed Bush to act otherwise. The Heritage Foundation reported that the law Bush would have signed, had it reached his desk, and which Bush encouraged, would have attracted tens of millions more aliens into the country — illegal aliens who would be legalized and who, in turn, would attract millions of family members to emigrate to the U.S. as well. And there is great debate over whether border enforcement aspects of the bill would have been enforced, just as this critical aspect of immigration enforcement was ineffectively supported after Reagan left office, in part resulting in the presence of 12 million or more illegal aliens in America today. It is fair to argue that Reagan, in the first instance, supported a flawed policy. Meese does not believe Reagan would have made the same decision twice. What’s Bush’s excuse?
Therefore, when Pete says that Bush never supported amnesty, he’s incorrect. Bush supported massive amnesty, but was loath to admit it, and he did so without learning from Reagan’s experience. But the public knew better and pressured their representatives to oppose it. The people learned the lessons Bush, Ted Kennedy, John McCain, and others, apparently had not.
2. Supreme Court. Pete writes: “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.”
Again, some background. Reagan’s first choice for the seat now occupied by Kennedy was Robert Bork. Reagan nominated the most accomplished conservative jurist and thinker of our time to the Court. knowing it meant a brutal confirmation battle in the Senate. After the dust cleared, in a relatively close vote Bork’s nomination was defeated. Reagan next chose Douglas Ginsburg, an outstanding conservative-libertarian former chief of the Reagan Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. He was forced to pull out due to personal issues which, by today’s standards, probably would not have sunk his nomination. Reagan settled on Kennedy, then, by all accounts, an originalist on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There was no indication of his later activism. Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor resulted from his decision to put a woman on the Court, where none had ever served. He asked his staff to find a highly qualified individual who would reflect his view of judging. Barry Goldwater, among others, recommended O’Connor. People forget that there was not a significant number of conservative women jurists at the time. During her earlier years on the Court, O’Connor actually was pretty decent from a conservative perspective. But she obviously “evolved” and her approach to judging became mostly incoherent.
In praising Bush’s nominees, and comparing them favorably to Reagan’s, Pete ignores some obvious facts. He makes no reference to Harriet Miers, which is odd. Bush nominated Miers in 2005 to replace O’Connor. The vast majority of conservatives were appalled, and rightly so. It appeared to be a brazen act of cronyism. I have no doubt Miers is a wonderful person, but Bush’s decision to put her on the Court was mind-boggling. Had her nomination succeeded, Sam Alito, who Pete rightly praises, would not be an associate justice today. Moreover, John Roberts and Alito are both alums of the Reagan administration. I personally worked with Alito during my time at Justice. Scalia and Clarence Thomas were Reagan alums. Reagan also promoted William Rehnquist to the position of Chief Justice. All the originallists on the Court today came through the Reagan administration. Indeed, Reagan Justice Department was used to build an entire farm team of great conservative lawyers who one day, Reagan hoped, would become future judges and justices. The Department of Justice included such legal heavy-weights as Ted Olson (who won the Bush-Gore Supreme Court decision), Scalia, Alito, Roberts, Ginsburg, John Bolton, Brad Reynolds, Chuck Cooper, and scores of others. Meese and Olson were also instrumental in forging the Federalist Society, which was a rich source of talent and counsel to Bush. Reagan did not have that advantage.
Importantly, the entire debate over originalism began under the Reagan administration, particularly by Meese, to fundamentally alter the public and legal perception and reality of judicial review. This is not to downplay the fact that the Roberts and Alito nominations are worthy of praise. Bush deserves much credit in that regard. But Pete’s argument is a surprisingly selective rendering of history from someone who knows better.
3. Taxes. Pete writes: “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 tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).” Let me elaborate on the Reagan tax cut via Lee Edwards’s account to make sure that folks who were not around at the time understand the huge significance of what Reagan accomplished, and the trail he blazed:
“It would take fireside chats with the American people, deals with boll-weevil Democrats in the House of Representatives, pep talks with discouraged aides, and even near death from an attempted assassination, but on August 17, 1981, President Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Act (ERTA) into law. It was the tax reform Reagan had been urging for decades. Newsweek called it a “second New Deal potentially as profound in its import as the first was a half century ago.’
“The measure cut all income tax rates by twenty-five percent, with a 5 percent cut coming that October, the next 10 percent in July 1982, and the final 10 percent in July 1983. The law also reduced the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, indexed tax rates to offset the impact of inflation, and increased the tax exemption on estates and gifts. Conservatives have consistently argued that ERTA was a prime factor in the economic growth that prevailed throughout the 1980s.
“There followed sixty straight months of economic growth, the longest uninterrupted period of expansion since the government began keeping such statistics in 1854. Nearly fifteen million new jobs were created — a total of eighteen million by the time Reagan left office. Just under $20 trillion worth of goods and services, measured in actual dollars, were produced from 1982 to 1987. To give some notion of how much that is, by the end of 1987 America was producing about seven and a one-half times more every year than it produced in John Kennedy’s last year as president.
“The expansion was felt everywhere, as conservative economists had predicted, including in the government’s own income. Total federal receipts in 1982 were $618 billion. Five years later, federal receipts were just over $1 trillion, an increase of $398 billion. More than enough, one would have thought, to satisfy all but the most eager advocate of the welfare state.
“And as Reagan had promised, the military benefited the most from the economic growth. In President Carter’s last budget, America spent just under $160 billion on national defense. In 1987, the Reagan administration spent $282 billion, more than twice as much on the military. During Reagan’s first seven years, he was able to expend over $1.5 trillion on national defense, “a staggering amount by anyone’s standards.’”
Reagan was not able to accomplish all we may have wanted, including cutting spending as deeply as we hoped and opposing all tax increases, but he was tremendously successful in taking a major first step which future presidents could follow. And to his credit, Bush did follow in instituting important yet less bold tax cuts.
What Reagan did do in trying to cut federal spending is veto spending bills. In fact, I can recall two occasions when the federal government was shutdown, albeit for short periods, over his spending (and policy) disagreements with Congress in 1981 and 1984. There were no shutdowns under Bush. Reagan issued a total of 78 vetoes, Bush only 12. Bush was, I believe, too timid in this regard. Reagan was much more fierce in his desire to contain spending. And he wasn’t worried about a “new tone,” either.
When Reagan entered office after the disastrous Jimmy Carter years, inflation was about 12%; mortgage interest rates averaged, on traditional loans, as high as 16%; unemployment was 7.5% and rising fast; oil and gas prices were through the roof at the time; and America was headed for a historically difficult recession. Respectfully, Bush came to office in a far better economic climate left by a Republican Congress and Bill Clinton, although it is likely the economy was experiencing the beginning of a recession.
As for Reagan raising taxes — having slashed tax rates across the board to low levels unheard of then and which are unlikely to be matched in decades to come, in this context Pete then mentions Reagan being responsible for numerous tax increases, including “then the largest tax increase in American history (the TEFRA tax).” I recall, at the time, that congressional Democrats had agreed to cut $2-$3 dollars in spending in exchange for $1 dollar in tax increases. The Democrats never made the cuts, an important lesson for today’s Republican leadership. By itself, however, this is meaningless. What would be useful is an analysis of the net outcome at the end of a presidency resulting from tax cuts and increases. The reason is simple: if there are massive tax cuts at the beginning of a presidency, and several tax increases (and further cuts) during following budget cycles, what’s relevant is the net. As Dr. Daniel Mitchell put it: “Reagan did sign several tax increases after his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, but the cumulative effect of those unfortunate compromises was relatively modest compared to the positive changes in his first year. When he left office, he bequeathed to the nation a tax code with meaningful and permanent tax rate reductions. The Bush tax cuts, by contrast, expire at the end of this year, and virtually all of the pro-growth provisions will disappear. This doesn’t mean Bush’s record on taxes was bad, but it certainly does not compare to the Gipper’s.”
Spending. Pete writes: “President Reagan gets the nod over Bush on federal spending, especially in his first year, when Reagan made a real run at cutting domestic spending. Still, under Reagan, spending increased by around one-quarter in real terms. Federal spending as a percentage of the economy was higher during the Reagan years than during the Bush years, though Bush inherited a more advantageous starting position. Under Reagan, the national debt increased from just over $700 billion to more than $2 trillion (this included the defense build-up at the end of the Cold War); for Bush, the figure increased from $3.4 trillion to $5.8 trillion (including the costs of two wars). Some conservatives are highly critical of Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), though history will vindicate that decision because much of the TARP money has been repaid, and its cost to taxpayers is lower than even its strongest early supporters expected (see here).”
This is a misleading. The figures provided by the CBO, linked through Wikipedia, show the following respecting the national debt as a percentage of GDP: the end of Reagan’s first term 43.8%, the end of Reagan’s second term 53.1%; the end of Bush’s first term 63.5%, the end of Bush’s second term 83.4%. Furthermore, the problem with TARP was not only the enormous amount of taxpayer money used to subsidize financial institutions but the fact that it created a precedent for government intrusion in the marketplace not seen since Herbert Hoover laid the foundation for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The size and scope of Bush’s federal intervention cannot be easily dismissed. Bush used $17.4 billion in TARP for loans to GM and Chrysler, even though Congress had rejected subsidizing those companies — and, as best I can tell, without specific statutory authority. He also signed the $152 billion Economic Stimulus Act of 2008 and the $300 billion Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.
In 2007, before much of Bush’s massive increases in discretionary spending, the CATO Institute compared the annual growth of spending by presidents since 1964, adjusted for inflation. It concluded that Bush’s increase in discretionary spending far exceeded not only Reagan’s, but LBJ’s: Bush 5.3%, LBJ 4.6%, Ford 3.0%, Carter 2.4%, Reagan 1.9%.
Last month, Dan Mitchell wrote: “Since February is the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth and I still haven’t gotten over my man-crush on the Gipper, I figured it would be interesting to look at Reagan’s fiscal record, particularly to see whether he was successful in restraining the growth of domestic spending.
“There is lots of good information in the Historical Tables of the Budget, which is produced by the Office of Management and Budget. I was particularly fascinated by the data on inflation-adjusted total domestic spending (discretionary and entitlements), which can be obtained by adding columns E and H of Table 8.2…. Reagan managed to limit average domestic spending increases to less than one percent per year. These figures, which are adjusted for inflation, show that spending has grown more than five times as rapidly during the Bush-Obama years.”
Frankly, it is absurd on every level to compare Reagan’s spending (and tax) record to Bush’s. Bush was an enthusiastic interventionist.
Entitlements. Pete writes: “The complaint about Bush is that he was the architect of a prescription-drug entitlement. Fair enough, though it should be said that because of free-market reforms, the cost of the plan was 40 percent below the estimates, an unheard of achievement. But even if one opposed the Medicare prescription-drug plan, one should take into account Bush’s decision to put his political capital behind Social Security reform, including personal retirement accounts. The effort was unsuccessful but politically courageous. No president, including Reagan, attempted reforms nearly as far-reaching. Reagan agreed to a plan to save Social Security that included large payroll-tax increases. In addition, Reagan enacted what at the time was the most dramatic expansion of Medicare coverage since its inception, including a complex system of price controls.”
I actually agree with Pete to the extent he says that Bush proposed reforms to Social Security. But it is hard to argue for Social Security reforms when you are also fighting for the biggest expansion of entitlements in 40 years with the Medicare prescription drug program. Most conservatives rightly consider this utterly irresponsible, despite the lower cost estimates referenced by Pete. All that proves is that an already unsustainable program will become unsustainable a little later, yet still sooner than otherwise would have occurred but for the Bush prescription drug program. Reagan never proposed or implemented anything close to what Bush did in this one act. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. Bush touts this as an accomplishment. Why do his former staffers try to persuade us that it was good conservative policy?
While not strictly an entitlement, but close enough, I would add that Reagan also attempted to eliminate the Department of Education. Among his most fervent opponents was Howard Baker, who was Senate Majority Leader at the time (and who had been George Will’s favorite candidate in the 1979 Republican presidential primary). Reagan also attempted to block-grant most of the Elementary and Secondary Education funding, and much of it was. Conversely, Bush insisted on a significantly increased federal funding and policing role in local education, including the “No Child Left Behind” program, with the help of Ted Kennedy. This not only goes to spending but, again, the appropriateness of the level of federal intervention promoted by the Bush administration. After 9/11, Bush also created the massive Homeland Security Department, with its endless layers of bureaucracy and overlap and massive budget, and federalized airport security (whose members are likely to soon be unionized).
Terrorism. Pete writes, “Reagan was impressive in some respects, including ordering the bombing of Libya in the wake of the 1986 discotheque bombing in West Berlin. On the flip side, Reagan retreated from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks. (In one of his fatwas, Osama bin Laden cited the pullout as evidence of American weakness.) Reagan also agreed to sell arms for hostages — and not just to any nation, but to the Iranian regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Bush, in contrast, was unyielding on terrorism.”
The issue is national security, not terrorism per se, but I understand Pete’s desire to constrict the discussion. But I am not so obliged. Reagan had to rebuild the U.S military. He had to confront Soviet and communist expansion in our hemisphere, in Africa, in Afghanistan, and he was successful as any president could be in all those regions. Hence, when Bush came to office, there was no Soviet Union left to deal with. No small accomplishment, but one Pete ignores. Reagan attempted to kill Gaddafi for his murder of Americans through terrorist acts. But in 2008, Bush actually paid Libya reparations for the bombing and opened diplomatic relations with the terror state. This would be the same regime the Democracy Project advocates insist we obliterate today (a view, incidentally, I share). So, when Pete says Bush would never have authorized arms to Iran for the release of hostages (which Reagan supported only after getting reports that CIA official and hostage, William Buckley, was being brutally tortured), we do know that Bush authorized reparations to a regime that paid terrorists to blow an passenger jet out of the sky, killing scores of Americans. This does not seem “unyielding on terrorism to me.”
Respecting the terrible killing of our Marines in Lebanon, the problem Reagan faced was not one of omission or passivity or priorities. It was not so clear who was responsible at the time, or who or how to effectively strike. Reagan was not one to duck a retributive strike against terrorists. I would also caution Pete that although bin Laden mentioned it, let me suggest that bin Laden didn’t need that act of terrorism or any other excuse to motivate him to unleashed the 9/11 attacks on our country — or what he hopes to unleash even now — after the Bush administration’s war on terrorism.
Social issues. Pete writes: “Both presidents were rock solid on abortion — though Bush probably has the policy advantage given his judicial nominations, his stand on embryonic stem cell research, his support for the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, and his opposition to partial-birth abortion and human cloning. Bush also promoted a constitutional amendment opposing same-sex marriage, an issue Reagan didn’t confront. On gun control, Reagan favored the Brady bill, while Bush was a stalwart defender of the Second Amendment.”
Let me try to unravel this. How were Bush’s judicial nominations better than Reagan’s on the abortion issue? Am I missing something? I guess Pete is talking about the Supreme Court. Kennedy and O’Connor were considered pro-life when nominated. In Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, the first case in which O’Connor was involved in the abortion issue, she voted with Rehnquist and Byron White for life. It is hardly logical to hold a president responsible for the changed positions of life-time appointed justices whose records and representations when nominated are of a similar philosophy but change down the road. Furthermore, if there is a distinction on the circuit courts, what are they?
The science relating to embryonic stem cell research and human cloning was not advanced enough during the Reagan presidency to make them issues. That said, Bush’s position on stem cell research was actually a compromise. See here and here. Moreover, I am pleased Bush signed the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. It was legislation spear-headed by, among others, Senator Rick Santorum. Is there any doubt Reagan would have signed it? Reagan’s support for the Brady bill was unfortunate. I recall, perhaps inaccurately, that Bush did support the Reauthorization of the Assault Weapons Ban, although it did not pass in Congress at the time. But why limit the discussion to only the Second Amendment.
Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law despite campaigning against it in 2000. More than violating his campaign pledge, the law was an affront to political speech. In Citizens United, the Court rolled backed major aspects of it (all the Reagan alums, including Bush’s two appointees, voted in the majority and against Bush). On the other hand, Reagan’s commitment to the First Amendment and free speech was evident in his FCC’s deregulation policies, which lead, in part, to the birth of modern talk radio. And when it comes to another part of the Constitution, equal protection, Reagan would never have signed on to legal arguments defending racial preferences in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger.
Finally, Pete gratuitously asserts that Bush was Israel’s best presidential friend. I have no idea what he means, since he does not explain himself. Most Republican presidents have been supportive of Israel. But if I had to choose one who stands out from the others, it would be Richard Nixon for his efforts in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Nixon agreed to replace all of Israel’s aircraft and tank losses, pledged U.S. military support, and faced down the Soviet Union, which wanted to come to the defense of its Arab allies, who were taking a beating shortly after they had launched their attack. Nixon soon quadrupled U.S. aid to Israel and the U.S. replaced France as Israel’s largest arms supplier.
I doubt I will succeed in persuading Pete of very much, given his admirable loyalty to President Bush. I am a big fan of the president myself, but not all his policies — particularly much of his fiscal policies. I think it is worthy to defend Bush, especially if you worked for him and believe in his actions. But there is no need to base that support on claims of fidelity to conservatism when, in fact, such claims are often fanciful and incredible. Of course, no president is perfect, and that includes Reagan, for no person is perfect. There is no shame in defending Bush’s policies for what they are and for what you believe they accomplished.
I have spent more time than I should on this reply as I have other work-related deadlines. But I did so not primarily to move Pete off his positions, but to hopefully inform third parties who read these debates and provide them with a perspective different from Pete’s and many Bush advocates/former staffers, which I believe is more accurate.