The NOW panel examines the record of a true fiscal conservative: former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. While Thatcher's policies helped tame double-digit inflation, they also came with high unemployment.
U.S. conservatives have spent the last 48 hours desperately trying to outdo each other in heaping praise on former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died Monday at the age of 87.
But in the same way that conservatives often view their hero Ronald Reagan through rose-tinted glasses, the same can be said of their praise for Thatcher. On Tuesday’s NOW With Alex Wagner, the panel–with some help from New Yorker writer John Cassidy–looked at Iron Lady’s record and how it would measure up compared with today’s Republican agenda.
While Thatcher’s takedown of the unions, dismantling of the social safety net and policy of deregulation and privatization helped tame double-digit inflation and modernized a country that, according to Cassidy, was “coming apart at the seams,” it also led to unemployment reaching heights not seen since the great depression and wider income inequality.
However, in contrast with the modern-day GOP, Thatcher still lived in a land of fiscal realities.
Alex Wagner read a quote from British-born conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, who noted that the Iron Lady’s conservatism had little to do with today’s GOP, writing, “she didn’t have any time for the loopy idea that cutting taxes would increase net revenues.”
Thatcher cut spending significantly. She also cut the top income tax rate from 83% to 40% and the base rate from 33% to 30%, but she paid for it by almost doubling the more regressive V.A.T sales tax from 8% to 15%. Her institution of the equally regressive poll tax in 1989 led to widespread riots and her subsequent downfall.
“That was always the big difference between U.K. conservatism and American conservatism,” Cassidy said. “Mrs. Thatcher cut spending, cut taxes, but she took deficit reduction very seriously and if that meant cutting social programs, she was perfectly happy to do it. She was willing to take unpopular decisions, whereas Republicans love to talk about cutting taxes and cutting spending, but they’re happy ultimately to see the deficit rise rather than taking unpopular decisions.”
She wasn’t the only one. Lest conservatives forget–Reagan himself raised taxes 11 times during his presidency.
The New York Times’ Frank Bruni agreed with Wagner’s contention that, by contrast, today’s GOP fiscal policy is predicated on the idea that you can have it all for nothing.
“Just look at the eight [George W.] Bush years,” he said. “We were told when he campaigned for the presidency it was all about lower spending, less government and when he left office it was with the most enormous deft and deficits, and not just from war but from the expansion of entitlements.”
Cassidy readily acknowledged that Thatcher brought change to a country badly in need of it, but in the end she went too far. “British industry did need a kick in the pants to some extent because the system which had been in place since 1945 had broken down,” he said.
Still, he concluded: “Maybe we needed a bit of shock therapy, but with Mrs. Thatcher there was too much shock and not enough therapy.”