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A Push to Put Reagan on the $50 Bill

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) introduced legislation yesterday to replace the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant with that of Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill.

“Every generation needs its own heroes,” McHenry said in a statement launching his proposal. “President Reagan was a modern day statesman, whose presidency transformed our nation’s political and economic thinking. Through both his domestic and international policies he renewed America’s self confidence, defeated the Soviets and taught us that each generation must provide opportunity for the next.”

Conservatives’ efforts to deify Reagan, of course, are nothing novel. In 1998, a GOP Congress renamed Washington-National Airport to honor the 40th president. There’s that enormous $800 million trade center on Pennsylvania Ave. bearing Reagan’s name. The Navy christened the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier, in 2001. And there was even a 2005 congressional push to replace D.C.’s 16th St. in favor of Ronald Reagan Boulevard. (It failed.)

What’s confusing is why Reagan would be the hero of anyone claiming to be a fiscal conservative. In 1980, the year Reagan was elected president, the federal debt was just under $908 billion. Eight years and several tax cuts later, it was $2.6 trillion — a jump of 186 percent.

Put another way: Reagan racked up more debt in eight years than the previous seven presidents had managed in 35 — a span that included the Korean and Vietnam wars.

How disillusioned are Republicans by Reagan’s legacy? In 1998, after the airport renaming, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called the move a fitting tribute to “the man who initiated the concept of a responsive, smaller government.”

He might have added: that can’t afford itself.

UPDATE: Libertarians aren’t fooled. While GOP leaders were celebrating their claims to fiscal rectitude last month at CPAC, Wes Benedict, head of the Libertarian Party, issued a statement pointing out that Reagan “signed massive spending bills that made his the biggest-spending administration (as a percentage of GDP) since World War II.”

An article posted at CNS News, linked prominently from the Drudge Report, noted that the Obama administration is on track to beat the Franklin Roosevelt administration in terms of average federal spending as a percentage of GDP. However, the article failed to note that the Reagan Administration already beat the Franklin Roosevelt administration easily. Roosevelt’s average was 19.4 percent of GDP, while Reagan’s average was 22.3 percent of GDP.

With that in mind, Reagan’s face on the $50 bill might carry something much different than the flattering symbolism that supporters envision.

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