Judging Reagan's legacy: The Gipper meets the Truth-O-Meter
By Louis Jacobson
Published on Tuesday, February 8th, 2011 at 4:54 p.m.
Ronald Reagan left the White House more than two decades ago, but he remains a giant -- and sometimes polarizing -- figure in American politics. In honor of the recent centennial of Reagan’s birth, we’ve collected a dozen fact-checks we’ve published over the last three years that judge the late president and his legacy.
• Sarah Palin: "Ronald Reagan faced an even worse recession" than the current one.
We used 11 economic factors to compare the 1981-1982 recession during Reagan’s tenure to the one that began under President George W. Bush and that continued under President Barack Obama. The two recessions were clearly the two most serious of the post-war era, but, at least at the time we wrote the item -- Nov. 17, 2009, we judged the Bush-Obama recession to be worse, and Palin’s claim to be False.
• Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.: "Three presidents in the last century -- Harding, Kennedy and Reagan -- all cut taxes during recessions and produced "rapid and dramatic economic recoveries," while two, Herbert Hoover and Barack Obama, did "the opposite."
Most of the dozen-plus scholars we contacted agreed that McClintock greatly oversimplified matters. Specifically on Reagan, we found that the recovery in his tenure was dramatic but not "rapid." The second dip of the "double-dip" recession of the early 1980s -- which occurred entirely on Reagan's watch -- lasted 16 months from peak to trough. That made it the longest recession between the Great Depression and today's "Great Recession." We rated McClintock's claim False.
• Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore: During the Reagan administration, "Millions of people were thrown out of work."
We found that employment rates actually improved during the Reagan years. Factoring in population growth, employment ratios grew by 2 percentage points over Reagan's eight years. Failing to note that while saying that millions of people were thrown out of work struck us as misleading. So we rated this claim Barely True.
• Moore: During the Reagan era, while productivity increased, "wages for working people remained frozen."
Adjusted for inflation, Non-supervisory production workers saw increased productivity during the Reagan years but also and stagnant or declining wages, adjusted for inflation. Moore left out some important qualifiers, but he was close, so we rated it Mostly True.
• Moore: During the Reagan era, "the richest Americans had their top income tax rate cut in half."
Moore is correct that the top marginal tax rate -- the rate of income tax charged to an individual on their last dollar of earnings -- decreased from 70 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 1989. That's not the same as saying the richest had their taxes cut in half, but Moore, in our view, was careful enough with his words to earn a Mostly True.
• Congressional candidate John Loughlin, R-R.I.: After Ronald Reagan cut taxes in 1981 the U.S. enjoyed "exponential growth."
PolitiFact Rhode Island found that Loughlin was correct that Reagan cut taxes in 1981 but that he omitted the fact that he subsequently approved substantial tax increases. Meanwhile, on the question of exponential growth, the candidate acknowledged to PolitiFact Rhode Island that it was an exaggeration. On balance, we ruled the statement Barely True.
• Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: After Reagan took office, "we didn't raise taxes and we didn't cut entitlements. What we did was we cut taxes."
We found that Reagan signed two major tax increases in 1982 that took back much of the break he'd provided in his 1981 tax bill. After a Social Security tax increase in 1983, Reagan approved further tax increases — in one form or another — in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1987. On the other hand, taxes as a share of GDP continued to decline until 1984, when they bottomed out at 18.4 percent, before rising back to 19.2 percent by the time Reagan left office in 1989. That rate was lower than during Reagan's first year in the White House. On balance, we rated the statement Barely True.
• Former Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee: "(Ronald Reagan) raised taxes a billion dollars in his first year as governor of California."
In the summer of 1967, during Reagan's first year as governor and contrary to his campaign promises, Reagan signed a record tax increase for the state of California — an 18 percent, roughly $1-billion hike. Reagan was a Republican governor in a financially strapped state where the legislature was controlled by the Democrats, and he wasn't able to muster support for additional cuts. So, he ended up reluctantly signing off on the tax increases. We rated the claim True.
• Obama: "Our tax rates are lower now than they were under Ronald Reagan. They're much lower than they were under Dwight Eisenhower."
If you make the comparison using tax brackets -- which we think was Obama's intent -- then the president was right when comparing today's rates to Eisenhower's, and he was close to right when he makes the comparison to Reagan. On balance, we rated Obama's statement Mostly True.
Former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney: "I'm pro-life. I'm not going to apologize for becoming pro-life. Ronald Reagan followed that same course, as did Henry Hyde and George Herbert Walker Bush. And I'm proud to be pro-life."
The part about Reagan was accurate. As governor of California in 1967, Reagan signed into law a bill legalizing "therapeutic" abortions, defined as those approved by medical staff because where there is substantial risk to the physical and mental health of the woman, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Biographer Lou Cannon, in his 2001 book Ronald Reagan: The Presidential Portfolio, writes that it was a difficult decision, and after he recognized its consequences, he became an opponent of abortions, except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest. Thirteen years later, Reagan ran for president on under a platform that included strong opposition to abortion.
Ideology and partisanship
• Then-Florida Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. "Actually, Reagan was a Democrat before he was a Republican."
Reagan registered as a Republican in the fall of 1962, after stumping for Richard Nixon as a Democrat. While making a speech at a Democrats-for-Nixon event, Reagan was interrupted and asked if he had registered as a Republican. He said he hadn’t. A woman then walked down the aisle, declaring that she was a registrar. She placed a registration card in front of Reagan, and in full view of the audience, he officially joined the Republican Party." We rated the statement True.
• Liberal newscaster Keith Olbermann: A new Republican litmus test "would have resulted in (the GOP) kicking out Ronald Reagan."
To enforce ideological purity, a proposal before the Republican National Committee in early 2010 would have denied party funding to any GOP candidate who bucked the party's stance on at least three items from a 10-point checklist of issues. It failed, but while it was a live issue, we looked at whether Olbermann was right that Reagan would have been denied funding for lack of orthodoxy. We set aside six of the 10 items because the issues have changed enough that we were unsure where the late president would have come down on them. On one of the remaining four (amnesty for illegal immigrants) Reagan definitely broke with today's conservatives. But on three others (abortion, gun control and fiscal policy) evidence exists in either direction. It was a tough call with evidence on both sides, so we rated Olbermann's assertion Half True.
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