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Did Reagan Raise Taxes? Let GOP Candidates Answer

Memo Pad Politics

Did Reagan Raise Taxes? Let GOP Candidates Answer


Politicians and their flacks lie every day, but it is unusual for someone prominent to utter a totally indefensible falsehood like the whopper that just sprang from the mouth of Eric Cantor’s press secretary on national television. While interviewing the House Majority Leader, “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Stahl suggested that he might consider compromise because even Ronald Reagan had raised taxes several times. Cantor’s flack then burst out in protest, saying he couldn’t allow her remark “to stand.” The premise of Stahl’s perceptive question was perfectly accurate, of course. But the rude Hill staffer is scarcely alone in promoting this super-sized lie about Reagan’s tax purity. And it would be worth discovering which of the Republican candidates likewise reject a fundamental truth about their party and its idol.

That video exchange is revealing for several reasons, not least because it shows Cantor trying to suggest that he was always willing to “cooperate” with President Obama and the Democrats during the current session of Congress. The public’s distaste for the obstructionism spearheaded by Cantor and supported by the Tea Party faction is evident in polling data, which may well worry the ambitious Cantor, who almost openly hopes to depose Speaker John Boehner.

The argument began when Stahl asked: “What’s the difference between compromise and cooperate?”

Cantor replied, “Well, I would say cooperate is let’s look to where we can move things forward where we agree. Compromising principles, you don’t want to ask anybody to do that. That’s who they are as their core being.”

Then Stahl noted, “But you know, your idol, as I’ve read anyway, was Ronald Reagan. And he compromised.”

Cantor retorted, “He never compromised his principles.” And Stahl recalled, “Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.”

“Well, he– he also cut taxes,” bumbled Cantor, a moment before his press secretary blurted from off camera: ” That just isn’t true. And I don’t want to let that stand.”

Over a rolling image of Reagan announcing his 1982 tax increase — sometimes described as the largest tax hike in American history — Stahl notes, a bit mischievously: “There seemed to be some difficulty accepting the fact that even though Ronald Reagan cut taxes, he also pushed through several tax increases, including one in 1982 during a recession,” as Reagan intones, “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise.”

In fact, Reagan compromised on many issues, including an agreement negotiated with the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to improve the solvency of Social Security for the past several decades. As Timothy Noah explained cogently in the New Republic (and not for the first time), Reagan repeatedly raised taxes in the years following the gigantic, budget-busting 1981 tax cut. Noah quotes former White House and Treasury official Bruce Bartlett, who served under Reagan and wrote a paper last year on “Reagan’s Forgotten Tax Record,” demonstrating beyond any doubt that the GOP icon raised taxes at least ten times during his two terms as president and also during his governorship of California. In that paper, Bartlett destroys the mythology of Reagan, which has been made concrete by the right-wing activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist with the “anti-tax” pledge signed by most Republican politicians.

It is understandable that Republican presidential aspirants, including the present crop, would seek to associate themselves with Reagan, a formidable leader who was often underestimated by Democrats. It is understandable, too, that they would emphasize the aspects of his career that appeal to their constituents, and elide the painful episodes of compromise and even disaster that marred his presidency. But in an election year when every Republican candidate has vowed to refuse any compromise on taxes that will reduce future deficits, the urge to erase history and distort facts must be exposed over and over again — because the lies are so often repeated by right-wing pundits and politicians.

The real history: Reagan was forced to raise taxes because his cuts didn’t “pay for” themselves, as the mythology also insists — and he didn’t raise taxes enough to avoid a legacy of deficits that only Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase on the top tier began to remedy. The Bush tax cuts, like Reagan’s, set the nation on its current fiscal path, worsened by his multi-trillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq. When the Republicans debate again, someone ought to test whether they will acknowledge those basic facts — or whether they will insist on the “big lies” of Republican fiscal stewardship.


Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. Nicholas Rudolph January 4, 2012

    This speaks more to the veracity and choice of staff of Eric Cantor than to the depth of their message. Reagan raised taxes several times during his time in office and there is no excuse for a staffer to attempt to dispute that, except that he is trying to give the Rethuglican lies some sort of credibility. For Cantor to allow, indeed sanction, such outright deception speaks a lot to his character. Time to clean out the den of deceivers in Washington and start fresh.

  2. avid reader mom January 4, 2012

    Denial of the facts don’t change them! Now how to best educate the masses–maybe instead of taking a pledge for no new taxes the Republicans should be reading the recent American history.

  3. ccrider January 4, 2012

    Not only did Reagan raise our taxes, he also let Congress allocate funds to provide tax breaks to promote building factories down on the Mexican boarder. Allowing Corporations to poison their Land and rob Americans of a decent jobs. Everybody knows that Ross Perot was right…..”that giant sucking sound”. As the American dream is eliminated from our future, we are hearing that ‘sound’ now. Reagan’s ‘trickle-down’ dream is coming true. It’s time America wakes up to ‘who’ really runs our Country. Get rid of the lying, word-twisting, weasels in Washington….and turn this ‘Ship’ around!

  4. BrianJ.Gould January 4, 2012

    Republicans are liars. Almost nothing any of them says can be verified, validated or proven by any measure or standard know to man. What can be said of anyone or anything that has as it’s/their core values and beliefs things that are baseless and simply not true? Deceptive at best and insane at worst. If any of them believe the things they say they are quite clearly insane and if they realize they are bald faced liars then they are deceptive, manipulative cretins. There is no in between. Insane or Horrible lying scum. A few like the scarily deranged and pitiful Bachman are in the insane category but the vast majority are evil insidious liars and as history has shown, people that gain power through lies have not displayed any beneficial behavior once the power has been obtained. I am alternately sickened and/or feel sorry for people that give even the slightest nod to a republican’s words or deeds. It just plain sad. Many of my species are so blitheringly stupid as to give them some credence. I am ashamed for them.

  5. IsaacA January 4, 2012

    To quote Senator Monynihan:

    everyone is entitled to their own opinion
    but that no one is entitled to their own facts.

  6. theuglytruth January 4, 2012

    This will be a little to easy, but what the Repub’s, have been doing since Regan is little more than what bullies do every day in our schools. Which is to hit the unexpected, then with loud obnovious sounds claim that they were just hit. Need I say more.

  7. jimackermann January 4, 2012

    I’m alot more concerned about the current situation. We now have a “spend and grow the government” philosophy. I don’t want anything from the government. I have my “big boy” pants on and can figure out how to EARN what I need, not depend on the government to get it. As for Regan, I would pay money to get him back. He returned a very broken economy to prosperity. No matter how hard you try to defame him, he left America a better place as he departed the Presidency. I doubt the current President will be able to say that.

  8. TX_RUPPERT January 4, 2012

    I am really confused when I see people in the “working middle class” that think they are suited to be a Republican. As my brother would say “what in the hell was I thinking”. Do these people really think they are going to become Millionaires just trying to affiliate themselves with the 1% while working to make sure they have something to do–(count the inheritance from Momma & Daddy). Why in the world would someone with more money than they can spend in a “lifetime”–(You can’t take it with you, where ever you are “bound for eternity”)not be more compassionate to those who have actually been a part of their wealth accumulation? Why are they so concerned about tax cuts, and/or taxation? There are tears in my eyes when I think how the wealthy must hurt in these trying times. LOL

  9. TX_RUPPERT January 4, 2012

    I was around when Reagan was president and Eric Cantor is no Ronald Reagan.

  10. valszy January 4, 2012

    What do all these evangelical christians think Christ meant when he said it was easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?

  11. rustacus21 January 4, 2012

    … & other authoritarian/Conservative cliche’s are tired, old & quite nuts, frankly! Forgotten is the reality that Conservative administrations “spent & grew” our government beyond ANY means & abilities to pay for. But pay for it we must & DID – AS A NATION!!! Not just the shrinking, increasingly economically disabled Middle Class, but certainly not only the richest 1%. It’s impractical in either scenario, so Conservatives, settle down & accept the fact that U made mistakes voting Conservative over that same 30 years! We Progressive Liberals have clear consciences knowing that our votes in ’76, ’92, ’96 & 2008 saved the country from certain & unavoidable ruin. & while it would be nice to focus on the “now”, the future respects no such boundaries & is coming relentlessly THIS WAY! This is the beauty of Progressive/Liberal thinking: we anticipate for contingencies. The regulatory framework, post-Great Depression worked in that very way, until Conservatives began picking it apart – piece by peace. Sure Clinton & some Dems were partially responsible – but only in the sense of being under duress while being made “offers they couldn’t refuse…” Conservative “trickle down”, “free-market”, “shrunken govt.” & the like, reflect a serious ignorance of Democracy, the “social contract”, as well as the citizens role therein. We can’t know the true potential of President Obama, since Conservatives have blocked him every step of the way. But had taxes been equalized across incomes, the entire “green energy mkt.” been given the SAME subsidies as the fossil fuel industries & prevented further bailing out of the criminal banksters & their 1% confederates, think of how much further along in recovery the nation would be NOW!!! Conservatives present all arguments, as if clairvoyants. They are ALWAYS wrong! The last 80 years of U.S. econ/political/social history tells everything we ALL need to know on this. It’s time for American voters to be smart again & stop thinking only in the “now”! The future smiles more favorable on those who are prepared best! My vote goes to Liberal/Progressives! So should yours…

  12. rustacus21 January 4, 2012

    … did the Reagan administration raise taxes, which was the most coherent economic move made by their administration. All other policy moves proved disasterous for the Middle Class, consequently. The over-obsessive focus on the rich & big business pushed the economic mobility aspirations of millions of Americans & their families at such a disadvantage, it wasn’t until the Clinton administration that these fortunes were reversed – somewhat. It was only a temporary reprieve, as his preceding Conservative followup made sure the ruin that was only hinted at by the Reagan team, was institutionalized & unrecoverable. As Conservatives have prevented every effort of the Obama administration, to implement full-out measures to bring about true recovery, Conservatives rejoice at the nations ongoing misfortune. In lite of this, who would dream of voting for any Republican on tap, considering they are only mutations of BOTH Reagan/Bush’s? Understanding what this article is TRULY saying is essential, as we enter this coming up election year…

  13. TWFlash January 5, 2012

    For those of you who are politically challenged, here’s the bottom: (a) Republican politicians and their minions (like Cantor’s mouthpiece) are all scum; (b) Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, John Kyl (and a number of others I’d be happy to name if I had all night) are dirtbags of the lowest order; and (c) If you vote for any Republican on your ticket, you’re voting against your own interests (unless you’re a millionaire). If you don’t understand those three points, you’re a moron. Amen.

  14. TX_RUPPERT January 5, 2012

    MORON is a good description of someone who is in the working middle class and is worried about being held back from becoming a millionaire themselves. Wake up MORONS of the world. If you are working for a living, how long will it take to become one of them? I,m guessing 3 or 4 lifetimes. Best of luck. LOL

  15. JulesGuidry January 5, 2012

    The Republicans are the lobbying force, in Washington, for the Rich 1% of this country; and in return, rewards.

  16. Happy Aussie January 6, 2012

    Margaret Thatcher was another leader who proclaimed long and loud ‘The Lady is not for turning’. People still believe her to this day. Yet, like Reagan it was ‘whatever it took’. She twisted AND turned. She was, like Reagan, a politician. Truth is optional.

  17. Bassicdave January 6, 2012

    …to his credit, did what he had to do: face political reality and raise taxes. I don’t fault Cantor for lying about Reagan and everything else under the sun. Republicans must be beside themselves that their constituents actually BELIEVE the lies. Imagine how the meeting must go: “C’mon, nobody will buy this shit!” “No, really, just tell ’em that tax cuts for millionaires will grow the economy – those dopes will eat it right up!”

  18. PeterSelph January 10, 2012

    If money were no object all of us could find pleasure in firing our poor service providers. With health insurance however, when it is chosen by your employer or you based on (no)means, there is virtually no choice. This is the criticism that should be directed at Mitt not that he enjoys “firing”. Canason’s article is fully out of context and he should be ashamed for missing the opportunity to exemplify yet another example of conservative arrogance.

  19. tailback34 January 12, 2012

    Its no coincidence that the middle class began to shrink after Reagan took office. His attack on unions continues to this day, thanks to the Republican party. Unions helped create the middle class in America until the Republican party, serving their corporate masters, began to try to destroy them. As unions lose bargaining rights and membership continues to decline, the middle class continues to shrink. Corporations and the rich are the only one’s who benefit from this; As a famous philosopher once said – “the security of the rich depends on an abundance of the poor”. Republican policies will ensure that the rich get richer while the rest of us are accused of “class warfare”.


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