Rarely does a single political commercial reveal as much about a presidential campaign as the ad unveiled this week by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Here is audio-visual near-proof of a crucial difference between Paul '12 and the rEVOLution of '08: This time the libertarian Republican is in it to win it. The production values are upper tier, the choice to attack Texas Gov. Rick Perry indicates a candidate trying to elbow his way past other grassroots-pleasing types, and the Reagan-good, Gore-bad message of bedrock conservative principle is plainly tuned to tickle the ears of mainstream Republicans.
But there's a fascinating gap in the ad's chronology, one that is a good deal more complex than the choice at the commercial's end between "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader, or the one who stood with Reagan." Ron Paul, like many small-l libertarians, was indeed an early and enthusiastic supporter of Ronald Reagan's presidential ambitions...in 1976. By 1988, when Rick Perry was still a Democrat who supported and endorsed the-then Blue Doggish Al Gore, the initial libertarian enthusiasm for "Reagan's message of smaller government and lower taxes" had disintegrated into acute alienation over the Great Communicator's tangible record of growing government, debt, and foreign entanglements.
Rick Perry and his supporters this week are firing back at Paul's Reagan-repudiating record, quoting from his 1987 resignation letter from the Republican Party and other comments from Paul's 1988 Libertarian Party run for president. These gotcha attempts actually bolster Paul's credentials as a limited-government conservative, and highlight an important libertarian critique of Reagan (and by extension, the modern GOP) that has mostly been washed away by decades of Republican nostalgia for The Gipper.
Paul's '87 resignation letter lays out the bill of particulars:
In 1976 I was impressed with Ronald Reagan's program and was one of the four members of Congress who endorsed his candidacy. In 1980, unlike other Republican office holders in Texas, I again supported our President in his efforts.
Since 1981, however, I have gradually and steadily grown weary of the Republican Party's efforts to reduce the size of the federal government. Since then Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party have given us skyrocketing deficits, and astoundingly a doubled national debt. How is it that the party of balanced budgets, with control of the White House and Senate, accumulated red ink greater than all previous administrations put together?...
Tax revenues are up 59 percent since 1980. Because of our economic growth? No. During Carter's four years, we had growth of 37.2 percent; Reagan's five years have given us 30.7 percent. The new revenues are due to four giant Republican tax increases since 1981.
All Republicans rightly chastised Carter for his $38 billion deficit. But they ignore or even defend deficits of $220 billion, as government spending has grown 10.4 percent per year since Reagan took office, while the federal payroll has zoomed by a quarter of a million bureaucrats....
[B]ig government has been legitimized in a way the Democrats never could have accomplished. It was tragic to listen to Ronald Reagan on the 1986 campaign trail bragging about his high spending on farm subsidies, welfare, warfare, etc., in his futile effort to hold on to control of the Senate.
Instead of cutting some of the immeasurable waste in the Department of Defense, it has gotten worse, with the inevitable result that we are less secure today. Reagan's foreign aid expenditures exceed Eisenhower's, Kennedy's, Johnson's, Nixon's, Ford's, and Carter's put together. Foreign intervention has exploded since 1980. Only an end to military welfare for foreign governments plus a curtailment of our unconstitutional commitments abroad will enable us really to defend ourselves and solve our financial problems.
There's plenty more in there about inflationary monetary policy, the drug war, arms-for-hostages, insufficient tax reform, failing to abolish the Selective Service and various federal departments, and so on. Conclusion? "There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government. That is the message of the Reagan years."
As the GOP presidential candidates prepare for their quadrennial pilgrimage to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, the Paul/Perry fight over Reagan's legacy is certain to come up in the debate. It would be an excellent occasion to revive two underappreciated points: That Ronald Reagan in the mid-1970s really was a rhetorical "radical for capitalism" (at least by the heavily debased standards of mainstream American politics), and that his presidential record was considerably less impressive than advertised on restraining the growth of government.
For evidence of the former, look no further than Reason's classic interview with Reagan in July 1975. His ideas about libertarianism were a mixed bag to be sure, but, well, here's how he answered the first question: