WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Even before he left office, the conservative joke was that things were different ''when Ronald Reagan was still alive.'' Now it's no joke. It's the right-wing rallying cry: All the nation's problems are due to George Bush's abandonment of Reaganism.
What a fantasy. George Bush is Ronald Reagan's legitimate heir. His policies are an extension of Mr. Reagan's, and the country's problems are more the result of those policies than of any imagined departure from them. If Mr. Reagan ''were alive today,'' he'd be in the same boat that Mr. Bush is, paddling in the same direction.
Count number one in the apostasy indictment is the tax increase in the 1990 budget accord. On TV the other day, Vice President Dan Quayle blamed the Persian Gulf crisis for forcing Mr. Bush to make this distasteful concession to the Democrats in Congress. That is a remarkably stupid lie.
On June 26, 1990, when Mr. Bush issued his famous endorsement of a tax increase, Saddam Hussein had not yet invaded Kuwait. But budget-deal revisionism is going to feature in the presidential campaign, so let's get the story straight.
It was Mr. Bush who initiated negotiations with congressional leaders in May 1990. Both sides quickly agreed on a goal of reducing the deficit by $50 billion in 1991 and $500 billion over five years.
President Bush always had three alternatives to a tax increase. He could have proposed spending cuts to make a tax increase unnecessary. He could have allowed the Gramm-Rudman chopper -- which the budget deal superseded -- to slash spending automatically. Or he could have abandoned all pretense of fiscal discipline and allowed the deficit to grow unmolested.
No one forced a tax increase on him, despite his best efforts to make it appear that way. Mr. Bush concluded that reneging on his no-new-taxes pledge was the least politically damaging option.
And he was right. The voters fuming at the tax increase would be fuming even more if he had proposed or allowed an honest $500 billion in spending cuts. You can't get that kind of money out of waste, fraud, abuse and welfare. What happened in 1990 is that Reaganism's decade-long bluff was finally called.
Of course the deficit kept growing. Conservatives would like to blame the budget deal for this, and for the recession: proof, they say, that tax increases harm the economy and thus reduce government revenues.
The argument is absurd. The 1991 tax increase was $20 billion. That cannot send a $6 trillion economy into a tailspin.
George Bush did not depart from the Ronald Reagan tradition of rejecting tax increases, because there is no such tradition. In 1982, President Reagan repealed about one-third of his 1981 tax cut. In 1983, he signed without protest the Social Security tax increase, and actually proposed a five percent income tax surcharge.
The 1986 tax reform, regarded by Mr. Reagan as one of his greatest achievements, was ''revenue neutral.'' It raised some people's taxes, cut others'. Now, when Democrats propose a similar revenue-neutral tax shift, Mr. Bush promises to veto it as a ''tax increase.''
Has George Bush betrayed Ronald Reagan's legacy on taxes, spending and the deficit? According to the latest Congressional Budget Office figures, Mr. Bush has actually reduced the federal tax burden, measured as a share of GDP, from 19.2 percent in fiscal 1989, Mr. Reagan's last year, to 18.9 percent projected for 1992.
Spending, true, has soared, from 22.1 percent to 24.9 percent. And as a result, the deficit has doubled, from three percent to six percent. On the other hand, during Mr. Reagan's recession of the early 1980s, the deficit hit 6.3 percent.
Mr. Bush inherited more from Mr. Reagan than just a set of alleged principles. Among other things, he inherited a national debt that had almost tripled in eight years, from $785 billion to $2.2 trillion.
Interest on that debt will be $201 billion this year. By my calculation, that 1992 interest payment would be about $133 billion less if Mr. Bush had inherited from Mr. Reagan a national debt the same size as Mr. Reagan inherited from Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Bush also inherited the savings and loan fiasco, which will cost the taxpayers $67 billion in 1992 plus interest on what previous years' payments have added to the national debt.
If it weren't for these two legacies from the Reagan administration -- interest and the S&Ls -- the projected 1992 deficit would be about 3 percent of GDP. That's as good as Mr. Reagan did in the boom years.
The truth is that George Bush -- just like Ronald Reagan -- has approved no major new domestic spending programs or serious increases in existing ones. But -- also just like Mr. Reagan -- he has done nothing to stop the relentless increase in the cost of middle-class entitlement programs that is really driving the budget.
On social issues, too, the accusation that Mr. Bush has somehow abandoned Reaganism is misplaced nostalgia. Those lurid scenes featured in Pat Buchanan's campaign commercial turn out to be from a film funded by the National Endowment for the Arts under President Reagan.
Mr. Reagan talked a hard-right line on social issues like prayer in schools and abortion, but he did little about them. As with his failure to slash government spending, he was not one to let ideological purity get in the way of re-election.
TRB is a column in The New Republic by Michael Kinsley.