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Debunking the “three for one deal.”

It’s impossible to keep track of all of the falsehoods that circulate in the right-wing echo chamber, but when one threatens to escape that rarefied world and join the conventional wisdom, it’s worth trying to stomp it.

The falsehood du jour is the idea that Republicans should dig in their heels when negotiating with Democrats, because when Ronald Reagan made a deal with Congressional Democrats back in the day, the Democrats reneged.

This has been a right-wing meme since at least the debt limit negotiations of last year; Here’s Edwin Meese III, Reagan’s attorney general, writing back in 2011:

The ratio in the final deal — the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA) — was $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. . . . The tax increases were promptly enacted — Congress had no problem accepting that part of the deal — but the promised budget cuts never materialized.

See? Republicans can’t trust Democrats to keep to their promises, so they shouldn’t make any sort of deal with them that doesn’t give them everything they want up front.

Although Meese’s bare facts are true—there was a deal, and the cuts never materialized—Meese is being extremely misleading. And to get the real story, we don’t even have to look outside the Reagan administration. Here’s David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director at the time, on what happened to the TEFRA spending cuts:

Of the spending cuts allegedly owed, $100 billion consisted in savings in debt service that Congress couldn’t do anything about. $40 billion was management savings that we had promised to come up with, and hadn’t; another $30 billion had actually been delivered in Medicare reimbursement reforms and other measures. Most of the remainder was the $50 billion in three-year defense cuts Howard Baker was proposing to cut again–and which [Secretary of defense Caspar] Weinberger was refusing to accept again.

—Stockman, The Triumph of Politics, p368-369.

So: only a small part of the spending cuts was under the Democratic Congress’s direct control. And that part was the only part that was delivered. The rest was either not deliverable, or was lost in the miasma of the Reagan administration’s dysfunction, described eloquently by Alexander Haig, another Reagan insider:

The [Reagan] White House was as mysterious as a ghost ship; you heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm?… It was impossible to know.…

The real lesson here is the opposite of what Republicans take from it; making concessions to them will never create any sort of goodwill on their part; they’ll just make shit up to justify their own spectacular bad faith.

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