In August two men who knew President Ronald Reagan well posted a piece on RealClearPolitics headlined 'Trump is no Reagan'. Since his campaign began, Trump has claimed the Reagan mantle but, argued one-time Reagan campaign manager (Stu Spencer) and speechwriter (Ken Khachigian), Trump has no right to do so. Pointing out that Reagan was 'genial and mannerly', optimistic about America, and refused to speak ill of a fellow Republican, the two concluded that one shared phrase (Reagan promised in the 1980 presidential campaign to 'Make America Great Again') did not outweigh the many differences.
The article finished with this declaration:
We find no similarities other than both Reagan and Trump came out of the entertainment industry. We knew Ronald Reagan. We served alongside President Reagan. Ronald Reagan was our friend. And, Mr Trump, you’re no Ronald Reagan.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has questioned such rosy views of the 40th president of the United States, declaring: 'To say that Reagan never got mad or made fun of his opponents is ridiculous'. Divertingly, Shirley added, 'there’s even the hair'.
Reporters obsess about Trump’s hair but people forget they also were fixated with Reagan’s, convinced he dyed it. They went so far as to obtain cuttings of the Gipper’s hair from Drucker’s Barber Shop in Beverly Hills where Reagan had gotten his hair cut weekly for forty years. They took these cuttings to a pharmacist, but were disappointed to learn that Reagan did not dye his hair.
However, we don't have to rely on the views of those who knew Reagan. And we probably should go beyond the hair.
This video from the 1980 campaign posted on TheMoneyIllusion, justly described as 'jaw-dropping', is enough to make you nostalgic for the past. Reagan and George H W Bush are questioned about education for the children of illegal immigrants. Bush Snr talks about the bigger problems of creating a society of 'really honourable, decent family-loving people that are in violation of the law' and 'exacerbating the relationship with Mexico'. Reagan goes even further, calling for the border to be opened both ways. 'Rather than 'putting up a fence'...why don't we make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit'.
No common ground with Trump there.
One Trump contention that was clearly shared by Reagan — the belief that lower taxes are a cure-all economic panacea — is also one of the more dubious legacies of the Reagan era. As James Surowiecki, editor of the New Yorker's financial page reminded us in March, Reagan came into office promising to slash taxes, increase defense spending and keep government services intact while balancing the budget. In the end, he presided over eight years of deficits that tripled the national debt. Since then, Surowiecki noted, politicians have kept promising that tax cuts 'unleash such a tidal wave of growth that they pay for themselves'. Not surprisingly, given the personal financial gain at stake, voters keep believing them. Unfortunately, according to Surowiecki, it just aint so:
This supply-side dogma holds that, because tax cuts encourage people to work more and invest more (which is true), they can increase tax revenues relative to holding rates steady (which is not true). The empirical evidence is by now unequivocal that, with tax rates at US levels, this doesn’t work; cutting tax rates simply leads to lower tax revenues, which is why, in the wake of the Reagan tax cuts, tax revenues as a share of GDP fell. Yet for 35 years, through the Contract with America and the Bush Administration’s $1.6-trillion tax cut, the message has remained essentially the same: lower taxes, higher tax revenues. This message has been fact-checked and refuted over and over again, but, once something becomes an article of political faith, it’s difficult to dislodge.
One important phrase in this passage is 'at US levels', which are much lower now than when Reagan took office. While debate over the merits of Reaganomics continue, there is no doubt the tax cuts that Trump is promising would take the US economy into uncharted waters.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marlon Doss