The Daily Beast's John Avlon tried to sever the Tea Party movement from the conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan in a Tuesday column on CNN.com. Avlon, a Tea Party hater, opined that a "key difference between Reagan's rhetoric and [the tea party] is the comparative civility," and suggested that "Reagan...would have a hard time getting the GOP nomination today" for apparently not being conservative enough.
Avlon began his column, "2010 Tea Party echoes 1964 Reagan," by tying the Tea Party movement to the former president's famous speech at the 1964 Republican convention, "A Time For Choosing." After giving three excerpts from the speech, the writer labeled it a "classic -- smart, funny and still so resonant that the rhetoric Reagan used more than 50 years ago echoes in Tea Party protests today." Actually, Avlon erred in his math, as 1964 was only 46 years ago.
The senior political columnist for The Daily Beast continued in his analysis of Reagan's speech:
Consistent with the Tea Party's self-image, it was primarily an economic speech, advancing a small-government libertarian economic philosophy, making statistics come alive with talk of fallen empires and American history, arguments aided by the added urgency of global conflict with communism. There is the specter of growing government power eclipsing the Constitution, the perverse incentives of the welfare state as an insult to hardworking individuals, all culminating in a citizens' resistance against elite liberals ruling by fiat from Washington.
Avlon then started to set up his claim that the former president wasn't as conservative as many lionize him to be:
It is compelling stuff, with the pitch-perfect delivery of a trained actor finally getting to recite his own lines. Speakers echo its themes from stages today almost like a tribute band. But, of course, times have changed a lot since 1964 -- and so some questions arise.
First, if America's past was as idyllic as many Tea Party protesters seem to believe, how come Reagan was warning about America's eclipse back when the "Andy Griffith Show" was still in prime time? Well, the top marginal tax rate was a whopping 70 percent then -- almost double what it is today, and down from 90 percent just a year earlier. That's cause for a serious debate about socialism. It's a reminder that the past was never pure and simple -- though some Americans might remember it that way because they were children then.
The writer is correct in pointing out this historical detail, but it doesn't tell the whole story. When the federal income tax went into effect, with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913, the initial top marginal tax rate was 7%. This skyrocketed during World War I to a top rate of 77%, and was gradually decreased to 25% in 1925. It went up sharply again in 1932 to 63%, peaking at a whopping 94% in 1944 during World War II. The top rate stayed in the 90%+ range for almost 20 years until it dropped to 77% in 1964, the year of Reagan's speech. It didn't reach the 70% figure Avlon cited until the following year in 1965. Reagan's first income tax reduction during his presidency cut the top rate from 70 to 50% in 1982, and it fell again to 38.5% in 1987 during his second term.
Before heralding the former president's apparent "civility," Avlon had to touch on a hot-button issue both then and now: race. He did acknowledge that both Reagan and the Tea Party movement weren't racist.
Second, Reagan's speech did not mention civil rights, despite the fact that it was one of the dominant issues of that election. Both Reagan and Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds, and it was this rift that Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul was referring to when he awkwardly affirmed libertarians' opposition to civil rights legislation. That does not mean that Reagan or Goldwater were racist -- just as it is mistake to label the Tea Partiers of today racist -- but that heroic fight wasn't their primary or even secondary concern, nor was it that of their conservative constituents. Not coincidentally, the former Confederate states of the South realigned in 1964, with traditionally Democratic Mississippi voting 87 percent for the Republican Party.
Another key difference between Reagan's rhetoric and today is the comparative civility. Reagan never attacks then-President Lyndon Johnson by name, and he is even careful to use the phrase "our liberal friends" when slapping the domestic left. He does not question their patriotism or call them communists -- after all, the Cold War was still on, and that insult seemed more idiotic and offensive than it does now.
The 40th president may have used the "our liberal friends" phrase during his endorsement speech for Goldwater, but he also used rhetoric closer to today's Tea Party activists, such as in a February 3, 1994 speech to Republicans: "Listening to the liberals, you'd think that the 1980s were the worst period since the Great Depression, filled with suffering and despair. I don't know about you, but I'm getting awfully tired of the whining voices from the White House these days. They're claiming there was a decade of greed and neglect, but you and I know better than that. We were there."
Near the end of his column, the CNN contributor then tried to spin the former president's record to portray him as a government-expanding social liberal.
There is a final irony -- the Reagan who was elected governor of California in 1966 and ran for president in 1980 would have a hard time getting the GOP nomination today. The self-appointed sentinels of conservatism would have taken issue with the fact that as governor, Reagan raised taxes by a billion dollars to close a budget gap and increased the size of the state workforce by 50,000. He also raised taxes as president.
Social conservatives....would have hated that he signed the nation's most liberal abortion bill into law. Reagan wouldn't have been alone in his isolation from contemporary conservative absolutists -- even Barry Goldwater could be painted as liberal today because of his support for gays in the military and the fact that his wife co-founded Planned Parenthood in his home state of Arizona in the 1930s.
Yes, it is true that Reagan raised taxes as president, but as he did earlier, Avlon isn't telling the complete story, this time by omitting details. Reagan signed two income tax reductions, the first in 1982. He also signed that year, according to a 2003 column by Bruce Bartlett, "not one but two major tax increases. The Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA) raised taxes by $37.5 billion per year and the Highway Revenue Act raised the gasoline tax by another $3.3 billion." Bartlett went on to outline other tax increases that Reagan signed, but contrary to Avlon, he made it clear that he did this "not to besmirch Reagan's reputation, but simply to set the record straight....I don't believe that Reagan ever initiated any of the tax increases enacted during his watch....But when all the political and economic elites of this country gang up on a president to raise taxes, history shows that they always get what they want."
Also, the 1967 abortion law, which the former actor signed into law when he was governor, was the most liberal at the time, but as journalist Lou Cannon outlined in his 2003 book "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power," he was no "pro-choice" activist:
In his heart, Reagan...really wanted to veto the Therapeutic Abortion Act. Instead, he subordinated his personal feelings to the commitment he had made to Republican [state] legislators to sign the bill. He wasn't happy about it. "Those were awful weeks," Reagan told me a year later. He added that he would never have signed the bill if he had been more experienced as governor, the only time as governor or President that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.
More significantly, when he was president, Reagan authored a pro-life article titled "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation" for The Human Life Review in its Spring 1983 issue.
Avlon might have a point about ideological purists in the Tea Party, and in the conservative movement in general, taking issue with Reagan's imperfect political record, but he made his point by selectively editing history.