On this Irish holiday, Jonathan Chait writes about the most prominent religious icon in the Republican Party: “At the 2013 Reagan Day Dinner, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, standing in front of an oil painting of Ronald Reagan bathed in holy light shining down on his head, began to recount his connections to the former president. He mentioned that his own wedding was held on the day of Reagan’s birth, and also that his recall election coincided with the anniversary of ‘the day he was born into eternal life, the day he passed.’”
Chait writes that the “Reagan cult” is primarily a “propaganda vehicle” for those opposed to taxes of any kind, even though Reagan himself corrected (or “betrayed”?) his big 1981 tax cuts with a tax increase in 1982 and a reform package in 1986 that effectively increased the government’s take from capital gains income. Today’s Republicans prefer to remember Reagan’s dictum that “history comes and goes” but that “principles endure.”
The enduring principles of St. Ronald are in the eyes of the beholder. Reagan believed that tax rates on the wealthy were too high in 1980, and the package he signed into law reduced the top marginal income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent. (It is now 39.6 percent.) Almost two decades earlier, President John F. Kennedy successfully proposed reducing that top rate from 91 percent to 70 percent. Some of today’s anti-tax activists thus argue for some kind of bipartisan Irish tradition of cutting rates on the wealthy until they’re as low (or lower) than those for scullery maids.
Surely a more appropriate saint would be President George H.W. Bush, famed for saying at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” Like Reagan, he did end up raising taxes as president. Unlike Reagan, he was defeated for a second term, and going out as a loser (punished by the voters for his heresy, according to the orthodoxy of anti-taxers) prevents his elevation as a guiding figure for today’s GOP candidates.
The person who should receive the most sincere praise at Reagan Day dinners is Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform who has said, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This quote cries out for a painting of Norquist being presented with the limp body of Ted Kennedy or Tip O’Neill, in the manner of Salome and the head of St. John the Baptist, but that imagery remains outside the bounds of good taste. Ronald Reagan in holy light will have to do for now.