So well had the revival of Ronald Reagan's reputation gone for two decades that all of this year's Republican presidential candidates wrapped themselves in the mythical raiment of the great man and claimed his sacred mantle.
They floundered when Newt Gingrich took the Reagan mythmaking to heights none of them could match, since they confined themselves fairly loosely to the truth as they imagined it, and when the former House speaker assigned himself a central role in all the Reagan fables.
That is the story of the presidential race so far. When the unceasing debates went south, Gingrich claimed a great advantage. Southerners, or a good portion of them, are accustomed to a mythical view of history and celebrate it. And when a debater is unconstrained by facts or even a rough approximation of the truth, he gains a great advantage. So it was with Gingrich in South Carolina, and so is it likely to be in the Republican primaries across the South.
There were satisfying moments for Gingrich in the lusty South Carolina debates, such as when he savaged reporters on the panel of questioners, one for questioning his innuendoes that America's poor people were lazy freeloaders led by a black president who encouraged them, and another newsman for asking him to comment on one of his ex-wives' remark that he had asked her for permission to continue having sex with a young woman on his staff who had been his paramour for six years, but there were more illuminating moments than those.
There was the time in the second debate where he took a dig at former President Jimmy Carter, who had the day before criticized his racist innuendoes, and entwined himself with Reagan and with George W. Bush, the latter, of course, without mentioning his name. Bush is an unmentionable in the debates.
"Under Jimmy Carter," Gingrich said, "we had the wrong laws, the wrong regulations, the wrong leadership, and we killed jobs, we had inflation, we went to 10.8 percent unemployment. Under Ronald Reagan, we had the right jobs, the right laws, the right regulators, the right leadership, we created 16 million new jobs." As a young congressman, he said, he had joined Reagan in that great struggle, which included historic tax cutting and ending the Soviet Union.
Then, he continued, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton raised taxes, over his strenuous opposition, and unemployment soared again. Gingrich said he did his best as the speaker by pushing through a balanced federal budget for four years — the first four-year stretch like that, he bragged, since before the Great Depression.
Except for Reagan's 16 million new jobs in eight years, all of that was precisely the opposite of the truth.
Unemployment under Jimmy Carter never exceeded 7.8 percent. That 10.8 percent Gingrich mentioned? It was Reagan's, in 1982, not Carter's. No sooner had Reagan (with Gingrich's vote) pushed through the big income tax cut of 1981 than the deepest recession since the 1930s set in. Unemployment exceeded 10 percent for 10 straight months, the only time since the Depression. Under President Obama, it reached double digits—10.1 percent — one month.
Unemployment went down, not up, after Clinton's 1993 tax increase. The economy in his eight years created 22 million jobs. Gingrich didn't balance the budget for four years. The speaker doesn't have budgets, and he fought key steps that achieved four balanced budgets. The last three balanced budgets occurred after he was forced by his party to resign from the House in 1998. He didn't even vote on them.
All that job growth after Bush's tax cuts for which Gingrich shared the credit? Bush oversaw only one million new jobs, the worst eight years for jobs since World War II.
Gingrich called Obama "the finest food-stamp president in American history." He said more people were on food stamps under President Obama than under any president in history.
It's true. Food-stamp use goes up in recessions, particularly prolonged ones. But contrary to Gingrich's claims, Obama did not work to make more people eligible. The Bush administration expanded eligibility for food stamps, which caused the numbers to rise sharply late in his administration and in Obama's.
Food-stamp participation set a record, too, under Ronald Reagan and then again under George H. W. Bush while Gingrich was a House leader. He did not call them the best food-stamp presidents. Food stamps, by the way, are not a black phenomenon. The share of recipients who are white are more than a third higher than the share who are African-American.
None of these are matters on which reasonable men can disagree. They are facts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has provided the jobs numbers every month since 1948, the Agriculture Department the food-stamp numbers since 1965, and anyone can access them in two minutes.
Gingrich was a trained historian but a practicing fabulist. Just what his party needs, but the country?