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Think Again: Conservatives Prefer Reagan Fantasies to Reality (And So Did Reagan)

Eric Alterman: Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York Posted: 1/5/12 06:55 PM ET


A bizarre incident took place during the 60 Minutes interview with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) on New Year’s Day: When Leslie Stahl asked Rep. Cantor whether he would be willing to compromise with President Barack Obama to improve the legislative performance of the current Congress, Rep. Cantor responded: “Compromising principles, you don’t want to ask anybody to do that. That’s who they are as their core being.”

When Stahl replied that President Ronald Reagan, Rep. Cantor’s “idol,” had compromised, Rep. Cantor stuck to his guns, replying, “He never compromised his principles.”

Stahl, at the ready, answered, “Well, he raised taxes and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes.”

Rep. Cantor, slightly flummoxed, came back with “Well, he — he also cut taxes.”

And here things got interesting.

Rep. Cantor’s press secretary, Brad Dayspring, began yelling from off screen, “That’s not true. And I don’t want to let that stand.”

Stahl, in a taped voice-over, later added in the mildest language imaginable, and without any personal aspersions cast — “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.”

President Reagan’s voice was then heard to say, “Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise,” followed by Rep. Cantor, doubling down, “We as Republicans are not going to support tax increases.”

The interview has generated a great deal of attention in the blogosphere. ThinkProgress jumped on it immediately, noting that President Reagan did not “compromise” just this once, but actually increased taxes “in seven of his eight years in office, including one stretch of four tax increases in just two years.”

The site quoted the Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, noting that “no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people.”

The Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen pitched in with his observation that the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which was Reagan’s biggest tax hike, is today “generally considered the largest tax increase — as a percentage of the economy — in modern American history.”

Moreover, says Benen, “between 1982 and 1984, Reagan raised taxes four times, and as Bruce Bartlett has explained more than once, Reagan raised taxes 12 times during his eight years in office.”

Benen believes that President Reagan’s legacy makes contemporary conservatives “look ridiculous.”

On MSNBC’s The Ed Show, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein took a stab at explaining why this must be the case, noting that the grand poobah behind the “Reagan Legacy Project,” and so much right-wing political thinking and organizing today, is Grover Norquist, who “has a vested interest in promoting the myth of ‘Saint Ronnie the Tax Slayer’ to justify his ‘no new taxes ever’ ideology.”

This is true, but it misses what is really strangest about this incident.

It is actually unheard of for a press secretary to attempt anything like Dayspring’s interruption, especially in so high profile a forum as 60 Minutes and with a boss in as influential a position as Rep. Cantor. (It is especially crazy to do so in one in which the editing process allows the correspondent to have the last word.) To do so with a bald (and easily demonstrable) falsehood would be under almost any imaginable circumstances a firing offense, as it makes both men, politician and aide alike, appear uninformed, incompetent, and generally out to lunch.

Rep. Cantor’s office did attempt to “clarify” Mr. Dayspring’s outburst, insisting that it “referred to the cumulative effect of President Reagan’s various tax increases and cuts, when added together.”

Again, this is not the point. President Obama has lowered taxes more than he has raised them, and they are today lower than they were in President Reagan’s time. But you don’t hear conservatives crowing about that.

No, the real story here is the vehemence of the conservative movement’s commitment to ignoring all forms of evidence that it finds inconsistent with its ideological preconceptions, regardless of circumstances or even consequences.

Ironically, tendency to ignore inconvenient facts and unwelcome evidence is actually President Reagan’s true legacy, as I noted in The Nation back in 2000, before the current right-wing mania for President Reagan gained its full force. This post originally appeared on

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