Republicans still clinging to a mythical Ronald Reagan

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

February 6 is former President Ronald Reagan’s 115th birthday, and the myths about him, many times over refuted, continue to intoxicate the minds of many Americans.

The GOP presidential candidate who most often compares himself to Reagan is Senator Marco Rubio. In the American Spectator (5/19/15) Paul Kengor states that several of the GOP candidates have “Reagan-like qualities, but Rubio especially strikes me as the closest to Reagan we’ve seen in a while.”

In a recent speech Rubio promised that “when I become president of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama, and it will be like Ronald Reagan where as soon as he took office, the hostages were released from Iran.”

This claim has long been discredited, and Rubio and others who continue to spout it should know that it is false. The Carter administration had done all the hard bargaining for the release of the hostages, and because the Iranians disliked Carter so much, they did not release them until Reagan came into office.

Reagan talked tough, but those threats were not always matched by decisive action. Even though his advisers encouraged him to do it, Reagan refused to invade Panama to remove dictator and drug trafficker Manuel Noriega. The brutal invasion, which may have caused 3,000 civilian deaths versus 23 U. S. troops killed, was undertaken by President H. W. Bush in December 1989.

Reagan’s intervention in the Lebanon’s civil war was reckless and ended in unmitigated disaster. He ordered the battleship New Jersey to shell Lebanese villages indiscriminately. On October 23, 1983, Hezbollah militants, who had heretofore been fighting Maronite Christians and fellow Muslims, retaliated. They drove a truck bomb into a Marine barracks and 241 soldiers died. Reagan pulled out all U. S. forces and the result was a major victory for Hezbollah and Iran.

Much has been made about Reagan’s great challenge to the Soviets in 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Four days after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a poll, reported in Will Bunch’s “Tear down This Myth,” showed that 43 percent of Americans believed that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for the wall’s demolition.  Only 14 percent gave Reagan credit, not surprising because his general approval rating had dropped to 48 percent.

When it came to nuclear war Reagan was anything but tough.  Soon after seeing the film “The Day After,” a powerful movie about a nuclear holocaust and criticized as peacenik propaganda by conservatives, Reagan sent a telegram to the movie’s director and said that the movie had changed his changed his mind about nuclear disarmament.

Reagan’s advisers were shocked when at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, he proposed the total abolition of nuclear weapons. When President Obama envisioned a world without nukes a 2009 speech, his call for accelerated disarmament was ridiculed by GOP leaders and Reagan’s putative heirs.

Obama has also been heavily criticized for negotiating a deal with Iran, which just led to the removal of 11 tons of 20 percent-enriched uranium from that country. Iran had no weapons grade materials, and since 2003 it had to plans to build a bomb.

Reagan promised that he would never talk to the Iranians, but Oliver North arranged for arms sales to Iran in hopes of releasing hostages held in Lebanon.  North used profits from the sales to support rebels fighting the duly elected government of Nicaragua.

In November 1986 Reagan announced to the American people that the U. S. had not traded arms for hostages, but he was forced to return to them in March 1987 to admit that his administration had indeed done so.

Republican leaders boast about Reagan’s courage to cut taxes and still grow the economy. What they neglect to mention is that Reagan was forced to raise taxes six times in order to head off huge budget deficits.  Even so, Reagan tripled the national debt, primarily because of huge, unnecessary military expenditures.

In 2014, calling on the name of Reagan, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback won substantial tax cuts claiming that they would lead to great economic growth, which did not happen. In June 2015 the Legislature reluctantly voted for $432 million in new taxes, the largest increase in the state’s history.

The current GOP presidential candidates have also called for major tax cuts. If any of them are elected president and the promised growth does not happen, will they follow Reagan’s example, or will they subject the nation to certain economic disaster?

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.

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