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Max Boot: The Gipper vs. the grifter

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan leave the White House en route to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the president's physical exam in this Oct. 29, 1981, file photo.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan leave the White House en route to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the president's physical exam in this Oct. 29, 1981, file photo.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump's acolytes claimed he was the second coming of Ronald Reagan — both men were elderly Republicans scorned by right-thinking people. Now, more than a year into the Trump presidency, some of his fans are getting cheekier: They insist Trump is better than Reagan — a perfectly plausible proposition, if you know nothing about Reagan or Trump.

Reagan took office during a low point in modern U.S. history. Fifty-two Americans had just been held hostage in Iran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. military had been hollowed out following the Vietnam War. The economy was being devastated by double-digit inflation and interest rates, stagnant growth and high unemployment. Oil prices had spiked, leading to long lines at the pump. Spirits were sagging. And Reagan had to confront all these problems with his party controlling only one house of Congress.

By contrast, Trump took office amid a long period of growth that began under President Barack Obama. In January 2017, inflation, interest rates and unemployment were all low. The economy in 2016 grew at 1.5 percent, after 2.9-percent growth in 2015; Trump's first year saw 2.3-percent growth. Trump was also fortunate to have Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. And lucky, too, not to have faced a major crisis during his first year.

Reagan wasn't so fortunate. Barely two months into his presidency, he was shot. Then came the air traffic controllers' strike, martial law in Poland, and another, even bigger recession. By the end of 1982, unemployment had spiked to 10.8 percent — the highest rate since the Great Depression.

Through all this adversity, Reagan showed more dignity, humor and grace than Trump has exhibited in his whole life.

Reagan proceeded to implement an ambitious agenda to reverse America's military and economic decline. He fired the air traffic controllers. With bipartisan support, he cut income taxes by 25 percent and lowered the top rate from 70 to 50 percent. Again with bipartisan support, he launched the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history — defense spending went up 24.9 percent in 1981 and 20.4 percent in 1982. By contrast, Trump requested a 9.4-percent increase in his first year, but Congress never passed a budget, keeping defense spending essentially flat.

Trump's record simply isn't as impressive. He hasn't succeeded so far in repealing ObamaCare, expanding the military or getting Mexico to pay for his border wall. His tax bill was only the eighth-largest tax cut since 1918; Reagan's 1981 tax cut was No. 1. Trump's tax cuts and spending increases, however, will add far more debt than Reagan ever did. Trump has trimmed some regulations, but his cuts haven't been nearly as significant as Reagan's. And Trump's “victory” over ISIS was mainly a continuation of what Obama had already been doing.

As impressive as what Reagan achieved was what he didn't do: He didn't demonize the press, attack minorities or immigrants, demean the presidency, obstruct justice, accuse his political foes of “treason” or have his lawyer pay off a porn star. The Gipper inspired the nation after the malaise of the 1970s. In other words, he really did make America great again. The grifter only talks about it.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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