Politicians and their flacks lie every day, but it is unusual for someone prominent to utter a totally indefensible falsehood like the whopper that sprang from the mouth of Eric Cantor's press secretary on national television last week.
While interviewing the House majority leader, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl suggested that he might consider compromise, because even Ronald Reagan had raised taxes several times. Cantor's flack then burst out in protest, saying he couldn't allow her remark "to stand."
The premise of Stahl's perceptive question was perfectly accurate, of course. But the rude Hill staffer is scarcely alone in promoting this super-sized lie about Reagan's tax purity. And it would be worth discovering which of the Republican candidates likewise reject a fundamental truth about their party and its idol.
That video exchange is revealing for several reasons, not least because it shows Cantor trying to suggest that he was always willing to "cooperate" with President Obama and the Democrats during the current session of Congress. The public's distaste for the obstructionism spearheaded by Cantor and supported by the Tea Party faction is evident in polling data, which may well worry the ambitious Cantor, who almost openly hopes to depose Speaker John Boehner.
The argument began when Stahl asked, "What's the difference between compromise and cooperate?"
Cantor replied: "Well, I would say cooperate is, let's look to where we can move things forward, where we agree. Compromising principles — you don't want to ask anybody to do that. That's who they are as their core being."
Then Stahl noted, "But you know, your idol, as I've read anyway, was Ronald Reagan. And he compromised."
Cantor retorted, "He never compromised his principles." And Stahl recalled, "Well, he raised taxes, and it was one of his principles not to raise taxes."
"Well, he — he also cut taxes," bumbled Cantor, a moment before his press secretary blurted from off camera: "That just isn't true. And I don't want to let that stand."
Over a rolling image of Reagan announcing his 1982 tax increase — sometimes described as the largest tax hike in American history — Stahl noted, a bit mischievously: "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," as Reagan intones, "Make no mistake about it, this whole package is a compromise."
In fact, Reagan compromised on many issues, including an agreement negotiated with the late Democratic House speaker Tip O'Neill to improve the solvency of Social Security for the past several decades. As Timothy Noah explained cogently in The New Republic (and not for the first time), Reagan repeatedly raised taxes in the years following the gigantic, budget-busting 1981 tax cut. Noah quotes former White House and Treasury official Bruce Bartlett, who served under Reagan and wrote a paper last year on "Reagan's Forgotten Tax Record," demonstrating beyond any doubt that the GOP icon raised taxes at least 10 times during his two terms as president and also during his governorship of California. In that paper, Bartlett destroys the mythology of Reagan, which has been made concrete by the right-wing activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist with the "antitax" pledge signed by most Republican politicians.
It is understandable that Republican presidential aspirants, including the present crop, would seek to associate themselves with Reagan, a formidable leader who was often underestimated by Democrats. It is understandable, too, that they would emphasize the aspects of his career that appeal to their constituents and elide the painful episodes of compromise and even disaster that marred his presidency. But in an election year when every Republican candidate has vowed to refuse any compromise on taxes that will reduce future deficits, the urge to erase history and distort facts must be exposed over and over again — because the lies are so often repeated by right-wing pundits and politicians.
The real history: Reagan was forced to raise taxes because his cuts didn't "pay for" themselves, as the mythology also insists — and he didn't raise taxes enough to avoid a legacy of deficits that only Bill Clinton's 1993 tax increase on the top tier of tax-payers began to remedy. The Bush tax cuts, like Reagan's, set the nation on its current fiscal path, worsened by his multitrillion-dollar misadventure in Iraq. When the Republicans debate again, someone ought to test whether they will acknowledge those basic facts or whether they will insist on the "big lies" of Republican fiscal stewardship.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of nationalmemo.com and writes for Creators Syndicate.