NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Historian: Tax Law A Turning Point For Reagan

DAVID GREENE, host: Well, one thing voters at the Iowa straw poll heard this week from nearly every Republican candidate was a promise not to raise taxes. That idea has been synonymous with the Republican Party for years now, but it wasn't always that way.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, from 1932 to 1980, there was a belief that the federal government could solve your problems.

GREENE: Historian Douglas Brinkley says for most of the last century, government was seen as a good thing.

BRINKLEY: That's what FDR stood for in his hundred days in the New Deal.


President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: It can be accomplished in part by direct reporting by the government itself.

GREENE: After FDR, people thought government could create solutions to national problems.

BRINKLEY: Like Social Security or the Fair Deal programs of Truman...

GREENE: Or later on...

BRINKLEY: ...interstate highways...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Our American dream, a futurama on wheels, can come true.

BRINKLEY: ...the St. Lawrence Seaway...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) of the project that has been recommended by every American president since Warren Harding.

BRINKLEY: ...Kennedy going to the moon...


President JOHN F. KENNEDY: ...of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

BRINKLEY: ...Jimmy Carter creating a Department of Energy, Richard Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency. It was bipartisan. There was a national belief that the federal government can make your life better.

GREENE: But then came the presidential election of 1980. Ronald Reagan tries something new.


President RONALD REAGAN: Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work.

BRINKLEY: It became Reagan's boilerplate campaign stump line.


REAGAN: ...to stand by our side, not ride on our back.

BRINKLEY: Get government off our backs.

GREENE: This worked for Reagan, Brinkley says. People were upset about some failed great society programs. The welfare system wasn't working. Schools were in decline. And so shortly after Reagan is elected, 30 years ago today, he signed a law called the Economic Recovery Tax Act.


REAGAN: This represents $750 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, and this is only the beginning.

GREENE: That single law, Douglas Brinkley says, was a turning point for Reagan's presidency and the future of the Republican Party.

BRINKLEY: And it's because Reagan threw down a gauntlet with the Economic Recovery Tax Act of '81 in which he started a rhetoric that was anti-federal government as president of the United States, this notion that enough is enough.


REAGAN: ...and mark an end to the excessive growth in government bureaucracy and government spending, government taxing.

BRINKLEY: Reagan had made it part of the DNA of the Grand Old Party. And since then, as this season will tell you, there's not a Republican that's going to talk about tax raising. As we speak, every Republican candidate for president is somewhere right now talking about cutting taxes. That is part of the 30-year legacy of the Economic Recovery Tax Act, which Reagan had signed into law.

GREENE: We've been looking back 30 years to the tax cuts of 1981 with Douglas Brinkley. He's professor of history at Rice University, and he joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Professor, thank you for being with us.

BRINKLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.