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Johnson, Reagan and the Great American Paradox

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Name the hawkish former president that liberals love to hate who cut taxes shortly after taking office, presided over a booming economy with low unemployment, reduced the national debt and whose legacy shapes much of today's debate.

If you said Ronald Reagan, guess again. In fact, far from reducing the national debt, Reagan tripled it during his two terms, while his "Morning in America" had the highest average unemployment rate of any post-World War II President and was surpassed by Presidents Clinton, Johnson and Kennedy in GDP growth.

If you said President Johnson you were correct. It was President Johnson who secured passage and signed the Revenue Act of 1964 that cut tax rates across the board by approximately 20 percent and introduced a minimum standard deduction. Johnson also presided over a booming economy (five percent annual GDP growth) with low unemployment (4.47 percent is second lowest of post-war presidents), while the nation's debt to GDP ratio fell 8.3 percent.

President Johnson also left a footprint on American life so vast it is hard to imagine an America without it. Consider the following:

Civil Rights.
Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that collectively outlawed racial segregation, housing discrimination and voting discrimination.

In contrast Reagan opposed each of these measures and launched his fall campaign in 1980 by stressing "state's rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi where four voting rights activists were killed in 1964.

Great Society.
Johnson's Great Society and War on Poverty included Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and extensive funding for education that led to a substantial reduction in poverty in the U.S. The former high school teacher remains our top education president as he signed the Elementary and Secondary Act that was "the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education ever passed by Congress" and is the starting point for substantial federal aid to local schools. He also passed the Higher Education Act that established work-study and other financial aid programs for college, and gave us Head Start, aid for bilingual education, the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts and Big Bird (through the Public Broadcasting Act).

President Johnson helped shape our cities through the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that included major funding for housing and mass transit and the National Historic Preservation Act to preserve historical landmarks.

Reagan opposed Medicare as "socialism" and blamed the Great Society for placing a huge burden on the "productive sector."

Environment and Consumer Protection.
Environmental protection began under President Johnson with the Clean Air Act, Water Quality Act and Endangered Species Act. Johnson also enacted a number of consumer protection measures from warning labels on cigarettes, auto safety standards (including seat belts) to child safety measures.

The Reagan administration worked to reduce the effectiveness of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and sought to reverse requirements that cars include air bags.

Government Transparency.
President Johnson's legacy includes a more open government through enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) ensuring citizens access to government records and proceedings.

The Reagan administration adopted a presumption against disclosure under FOIA and succeeded in weakening its requirements.

Given this legacy, I was surprised when I went to the Johnson Presidential Library in Austin. The library seems understated since it opened eight years before I.M. Pei's cathedral to his predecessor that has set the standard for all that followed. Most striking was how few books there were about Johnson in the gift shop compared to the Kennedy museum, as despite his impressive legacy, the stain of Vietnam has left shockingly few willing to carry his banner.

Yet try to imagine life today without the Johnson Presidency. You can't. Now try to imagine life today had Reagan not been President. It is not so hard is it? In fact, its pretty easy to image a presidency that did not squander billions on tax cuts for the rich and Star Wars weapons system but instead invested in every day Americans as Johnson had.

It would seem that the starting point for understanding what is wrong with our politics today is digesting the paradox that one of the greatest President's of the 20th Century is considered a failure, but the President who gave us the failed legacy of voodoo economics and resulting income inequality is deemed a success. Yet as long as progressives ignore the Johnson legacy and cede the debate over government being a force for good, not only will this paradox continue, but Reagan's heirs will be increasingly emboldened in their efforts to dismantle Johnson's legacy.

The upcoming crucial midterm elections fall on the 50th anniversary of Johnson's landslide victory over the godfather of modern conservatism. Democrats must make the case that from Kennedy to Johnson to Clinton to Obama the record is clear which party stands for hope and opportunity and which party represents "mourning in America."