In the debt-ceiling debate, both Republicans and Democrats wanted Ronald Reagan on their side. Republicans embraced the 40th president's disdain for government and fondness for tax cuts, while Democrats noted that "even Reagan" raised the debt limit many times and accepted some tax increases.
But Reagan -- possibly more than any political leader -- deserves the blame for the economic/political mess that the United States now finds itself in. He was the patriarch for virtually every major miscalculation that the country has made over the past three decades.
It was Reagan who slashed taxes on the rich to roughly their current level; he opened the flood gates on deficit spending; he accelerated the decline of the middle class by busting unions and slashing support for local communities; he disparaged the value of government regulations; he squandered money on the Pentagon; he pushed more militaristic strategies abroad; and he rejected any thoughtful criticism of past U.S. foreign policies.
Reagan also created what amounted to a "populist" right-wing cult that targeted the federal government as the source of nearly all evil. In his First Inaugural Address, he famously declared that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
It is that contempt for government that today is driving the Tea Party extremists in the Republican Party. Yet, as with many cults, the founder of this one was somewhat more practical in dealing with the world around him, thus explaining some of Reagan's compromises on the debt ceiling and taxes.
But once the founder is gone, his teachings can become definitive truth to the disciples. Flexibility disappears. No deviation is permitted. No compromise is tolerated.
So, at a time when government intervention is desperately needed to address a host of national problems, members of this Reagan cult apply the teachings of the leader in the most extreme ways. Since "government is the problem," the only answer is to remove government from the equation and let the corporations, the rich and the magical "market" dictate national solutions.
It is an ironic testament to Ronald Reagan's enduring influence that America's most notable "populist" movement, the Tea Party, insists that tax cuts for the wealthy must be protected, even minor ones like tax loopholes for corporate jets. Inside the Tea Party, any suggestion that billionaire hedge-fund managers should pay a tax rate equal to that of their secretaries is anathema.
Possibly never in history has a "populist" movement been as protective of the interests of the rich as the Tea Party is. But that is because it is really a political cult dedicated to the most extreme rendering of Ronald Reagan's anti-government philosophy.
Granted, the Tea Party also can be viewed as an astro-turf outfit financed by billionaires like the Koch brothers and promoted by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch. But Election 2010 proved that the movement is capable of putting like-minded politicians into office, especially when discouraged elements of the American Left choose to sit on the sidelines.
During the debt-ceiling battle, the GOP's Tea Party caucus showed it was strong enough to block any compromise that included a revenue increase. The thinking is that the "evil" government must be starved even if that means defending indefensible tax loopholes and shoving the world's economy to the brink of catastrophe.
The Tea Party's rabid enforcement of the Reagan orthodoxy instills such fear among top Republicans that every one of the eight presidential hopefuls at a recent Iowa debate vowed to reject a deal that would include just $1 of higher taxes for each $10 in spending cuts. Even supposed moderates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman threw up their hands.
But the Reagan cult reaches far beyond the Republican Party. Last February, a Gallup poll of Americans cited Reagan as the greatest president ever, with a five percentage point lead over Abraham Lincoln.
These days, virtually no one in Washington's political or media circles dares to engage in a serious critique of Reagan's very checkered record as president. It's much easier to align yourself with some position that Reagan took during his long career, much like a pastor selectively picking a Bible passage to support his theological argument.
When negative national trends are cited -- such as the decline of the middle class or the widening gap between rich and poor -- the self-censorship demands that Reagan's name not be spoken. Instead, there are references to these problems deepening "over the past three decades," without mentioning whose presidency got things going big time.