Reality Check: Ronald Reagan Increased Taxes and “Liberalized” Abortion As CA's Governor

With the 2014 general elections fast approaching, political candidates are feverishly campaigning across the country. And, many prominent Republican candidates are out in full stride evoking Ronald Reagan and promising that, if elected, they'll carry forward his conservative legacy.

The head of the California Democratic Party, John Burton, created some political buzz this week after penning a letter in which he suggested that Reagan was more progressive than Republicans like to remember. Namely, Burton said that Reagan, as governor of the Golden State, spearheaded a huge tax increase and "liberalized" abortion.

Are any of these two claims true? Yes, both are.

In 1967, then-Governor Reagan signed into law a tax increase that actually amounted to the largest tax hike in the state’s history. That same year, Reagan also signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which essentially legalized abortion in California.

But context is important, especially in this case, says Bernard von Bothmer, a Reagan biographer and USF political history professor.

“Both the right and the left are being very selective in what they remember about Ronald Reagan,” von Bothmer said. “Neither one is exactly wrong, but neither one is exactly right, either.”

The 1960s was a very different time from the 1970s, von Bothmer explained. Specifically, trickle-down economics, and the emphasis on tax cuts, didn't become a major tenant of the Republican platform until the ‘70s. And, the battle lines surrounding abortion were largely drawn as the Supreme Court considered, and eventually decided, the Roe v. Wade case in 1973.

Von Bothmer added that it’s important to understand “that with his abortion policy, number one, Reagan came to regret that. He came to regret that he passed that law later on. Secondly, the ‘moral majority’, led by Jerry Falwell, was not a key element of the Republican party when Reagan did that in the 1960s as governor of California.”

While it's hard to say what exactly led Reagan to change his stance on abortion or spending issues, the reality is that as governor, Burton’s claims are right -- Reagan did increase taxes and “liberalize” abortion. It's also a fact that as President, Reagan strongly believed in smaller government, lower taxes, and pro-life issues.

However, Burton concluded his tongue-in-cheek letter with the following statement: “I think it’s wonderful…to honor somebody who has such a liberal progressive record.” It would probably be incredibly difficult (maybe even impossible) to find a historian that used Reagan and “liberal” in the same sentence to characterize his overall record.

Or, as von Bothmer said, “When you look at the big record, and you look at Reagan’s actual speeches, he was far from a progressive. And, actually he moved the country further to the right, as governor and as president.”

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