Reagan As He Was

October 17th, 2011 at 11:59 pm | 41 Comments |

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An increasing number of political commentators are saying, in effect, that it’s a surefire certainty that Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.  Of course, four years ago the Higher Punditry was united in foreseeing that Hillary Clinton would be the 2008 Democratic nominee, so don’t bet the mortgage on Romney’s coronation yet.

Although the former Massachusetts governor does now seem a likelier nominee than he did a month or two ago, the conservative grassroots still harbors a profound ambivalence about Romney and, indeed, all the other GOP presidential aspirants.  What the grassroots activists really want is another Ronald Reagan: a genuine conservative candidate who will unite the party’s warring factions, overthrow an incumbent Democratic president, and transform the American political discourse.  But a quick historical reflection on Reagan during the 1980 race suggests that none of the GOP’s present presidential possibilities are likely to fill the Gipper’s shoes.

As a thought experiment, consider how Reagan would appear as a presidential candidate today.  If he were the same age now as he was at this point in the campaign leading up to his 1980 election victory, Reagan would be sixty-eight years old – the same age as Newt Gingrich, eight years younger than Ron Paul, and not much older than Romney (64) and Rick Perry (61).  (By contrast, George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s principal opponent in the 1980 primaries, was only fifty-five in the year before the elections.)

In this alternate scenario, Reagan first would have come to public attention as a Hollywood film star in the early 1970s, when he would have been politically as far to the left as you could get without actually joining the Symbionese Liberation Army.  Reagan would have remarried in the 1980s and begun to move rightward, but would have switched his registration from Democrat to Republican only in 1994, at age fifty-one.  His first political involvement would have come as a GOP speechmaker in 1996, followed by his election as California governor in 1998.  After leaving office at the conclusion of his second term in 2007, Reagan would have narrowly missed seizing the GOP presidential nomination at the 2008 convention – his second attempt, after an initial run in 2000.  By 2011, Reagan would be a household name to most Americans, a long-established officeholder and presidential contender, and the principal political spokesman for American conservatism over the previous dozen years.  None of the current GOP presidential nominees can match those qualifications.

Of course, American conservatism today is not what it was back in 1979, so Reagan’s political record in California in all likelihood would now open him up to relentless attack from the right.  As governor, Reagan violated the two greatest conservative taboos by signing the nation’s most liberal abortion law and, in his first year in office, imposing the largest tax increase in the history of California, or indeed of any other state at that time.  Worse still, from a conservative standpoint, Reagan’s tax increases were highly progressive, disproportionately targeting corporations and high-income individuals.

As a former union leader, Reagan was an outspoken opponent of right-to-work laws (still a favorite right-wing cause), and as an outdoorsman and conservationist he added more land to the state park system than any California governor other than Earl Warren.  Reagan’s past left-wing enthusiasms, and his wife’s close friendships with homosexual men, would not pass muster with today’s right-wing enforcers.  Nor would it escape the beady attention of social conservatives that although Reagan talked a good game about the importance of faith, he rarely attended church.

Reagan nonetheless retained the affection and loyalty of conservatives.  In large part this was because, although there’s no good way to prove this, most conservatives seem to have considered him one of their own, and so allowed him latitude that they wouldn’t have granted to most other politicians.

Reagan also helped to bring conservatism to maturity in politics by persuading his followers that principles had to be balanced with pragmatism.  In a state that – unlike Texas – contained a wide spectrum of political views, Reagan negotiated and found common ground with Democrats and moderate Republicans in the California legislature.

Compromise, to Reagan, was a necessary price to pay for conservative victories he achieved as governor, such as reductions in property taxes, cutbacks in the state bureaucracy, welfare reforms, a strengthened criminal justice system, and a new public consensus behind values such as order and stability.  In his view, conservatives accomplished their aims by winning over opponents, not by crushing enemies.  He warned California movement activists against making the GOP into “a narrow sectarian party” that would disappear “in a blaze of glorious defeat.”

It’s highly unlikely that any one of the current crop of Republican candidates, even if elected president, could channel and discipline the energies of the conservative movement as Reagan did, and thereby make the GOP into a party that can wield power effectively and persuade the country to move in a conservative direction.

This isn’t entirely the candidates’ fault; the conservative movement, aided and abetted by enforcers such as Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth, has become so rigid and dogmatic that it denies the conservative label to anyone who engages in bipartisanship or transgresses against any of the growing number of conservative positions, from in-state tuition for illegal immigrants to global warming to evolution.  It has thereby become essentially impossible for a Republican holding a position of serious authority to both govern responsibly and pay absolute fidelity to the conservative line.

Republicans who really do want to see a second coming of Reagan would be advised to hope for the best, in future elections, from charismatic but non-doctrinaire “purple state” leaders, possibly including the likes of Chris Christie, Robert McDonnell, and Marco Rubio – and be prepared to cut them some ideological slack.

Recent Posts by Geoffrey Kabaservice



41 Comments so far ↓

  • Graychin

    You guys tickle me with your nostalgia trips. Is that what’s at the heart of Conservative thought? Yearning for the Good Old Days?

    Sorry, but Reagan isn’t coming back. Even if he did, you would stone him. This ain’t your grandpa’s GOP any longer. It’s something you patched together like Frankenstein’s monster – part Southern Strategy, part Moral Majority, part Don’t Tread on Me tax protesters, part Grover Norquist, with Ron Paul as the cherry on top. And a healthy dose of Rove, Koch and Schaife money in the bloodstream. The country club / Chamber of Commerce types see that it’s out of their control, and have no idea how to rein it in.

    As you sow…

  • Clayman

    “It’s highly unlikely that any one of the current crop of Republican candidates, even if elected president, could channel and discipline the energies of the conservative movement as Reagan did, and thereby make the GOP into a party that can wield power effectively and persuade the country to move in a conservative direction.”

    Limbaugh will annoint the new leader soon.

  • Clayman

    Here at the Steele Forum we begin an open and not so traditional conversation across America that pushes the envelope on a new direction for our country.

    So tell your friends there’s a new playground in the neighborhood. Now let’s have some fun!

    MICHAEL STEELE
    http://steeleforum.com/

  • Giggles

    You do know that he is still dead?

    Perry’s new plan for nomination:

    1) Change name to R. Reagan.

    2) err…

    That is all.

    • Graychin

      Right! It’s the Underwear Gnome strategy!

      1) Change name to R. Reagan

      2) ??????

      3) Profit!

    • Solo4114

      You forgot,

      Phase 3: Profit!!!

      –EDIT– I see I should hit “refresh page” a bit more frequently…

  • armstp1

    Geoff,

    You forgot Reagan’s views on illegal immigration. I think this topic alone would have disqualified him from the modern GOP. He would have had no chance to become the nominee.

    Don’t forget that in November 1986 Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act which gave amnesty to between 2.0 million and 4.0 million illegal immigrants. His signing statement included:

    “We have consistently supported a legalization program which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America. The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

    That certainly would not put him in the good books of the Tea Party and modern GOP.

    However, his support of illegals was evident well before he became President.

    “In one of his radio addresses, in November 1977, he wondered about what he called “the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.” As a Californian, Reagan understood the role of immigrant labor in agriculture.”

    And then as a Presidential candidate:

    “In 1980, according to the book “Reagan: His Life in Letters” (page 511), the then-Presidential candidate wrote to one supporter that “I believe we must resolve the problem at our southern border with full regard to the problems and needs of Mexico. I have suggested legalizing the entry of Mexican labor into this country on much the same basis you proposed..

    That would not win him any fans in the Tea Party.

    Reagan also said:

    “Some months before I declared, I asked for a meeting and crossed the border to meet with the president of Mexico. I did not go with a plan. I went, as I said in my announcement address, to ask him his ideas–how we could make the border something other than a locale for a nine-foot fence.”

    So much for those conservatives who think the Gipper would have endorsed a 2,000-mile Tom Tancredo-Pat Buchanan wall.

    • Michigan Outsider

      In 1986, I thought that the immigration law signed by President Reagan was a reasonable solution to a difficult problem. If the poster is correct, in 1986, there were between 2 and 4 million illegal aliens, and the amnesty was supposed to be a one time deal, with stricter enforcement in the future. Well, the amnesty happened, but the stricter enforcement never did. Big surprise, we now have somewhere north of 10 million illegal aliens here. We also have the added problem that lax border enforcement provides a method for terrorists to come here.

      Personally, I have changed my mind on this subject and think we should build a decent wall and make it as easier for an employer to check immigration status as it is for any retail store to check to see if you are the authorized user of a credit card. President Reagan changed his mind on many subjects over time, and he may very have changed his mind on this one given what has happened.

      • armstp1

        Actually, the number of illegals in this country has likely fallen from a high of about 12 million in 2007 to about 10 million today. The recession has had an impact on illegals too. Many have gone home and the flow has slowed.

        However, you have to put the number of illegals into context. We had 4 million illegals in 1986, so if you consider how much the U.S. economy has grown in those 25 years, having somewhere between 10-12 million today is significant growth, but not as much as you think, given we have a much bigger economy and therefore a need for much more cheaper labor.

        In 1985 U.S. GDP was $7.2 trillion. Today it is $14 trillion.

        In fact, Reagan’s views on illegals should be considered much closer to what a true conservative or libertarian’s view on illegals should be. I would assume all free marketers welcome the biggest and most open labor market as possible. You know true supply and demand. We know conservatives are largely against a minimum wage.

    • Watusie

      Not to mention his views on unions:

      Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.
      Ronald Reagan, Labor Day Address, 1980

      Who wants to go next?

      • armstp1

        Reagan in 1980 was to the left of Obama today.

        • Graychin

          True.

          Those who worship at the Altar of Reagan should seriously consider voting for Obama. He’s the closest thing to Reagan running for president today.

  • Primrose

    I think it is very unlikely in this climate that Mr. Reagan would have joined the Republican party in the first place. His was a sunny disposition who believed in perhaps, shallow, perhaps just simple ideas, of what America was, and who we were. He would have been turned off by the bad temper and division in the Republican party. He is hardly my hero but I can not believe that he would join any party where Rush Limbaugh was a dominant voice.

    And for those conservatives about to jump and say both sides are the same. No. If you haven’t accepted proof so far, accept this: Mr. Limbaugh criticized Mr. Obama for sending advisors to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army.

    Because they are a “christian organization fighting Muslims.” The Lord’s Resistence Army, known for child soldiers, rape, sex slavery, and general terrorism. “Go Team”, saith Rush.

    No the liberal side is not so bad tempered. Nor was Reagan.

  • NRA Liberal

    A better analogy for today’s T.O.P. would be the Democratic Party that nominated McGovern.

  • stangreer

    The author’s comment about Ronald Reagan’s stance on Right to Work laws is very misleading. Actually, that’s too kind. It’s basically false.

    The kernel of truth is that Reagan did oppose Right to Work laws before he entered electoral politics and did not actively support making California a Right to Work state while he was governor. However, by the time Reagan became a serious presidential candidate, he had seen the light. He became an increasingly staunch supporter of state Right to Work laws and a staunch opponent of federal legislation designed to expand Big Labor’s compulsory-unionism privileges. On January 13, 1976, the Washington Post’s Lou Cannon quoted Reagan: “I would say that right now my leaning is very heavily toward right-to-work, and I think that’s the feeling of the rank-and-file of labor.”

    By June 6, 1979, Reagan wasn’t hedging at all. He said: “It should be the right of the individual to decide whether he wants to belong to a union.”

    The fact that the author of this article could refer to Reagan simply as an “opponent” of Right to Work laws, without acknowledging that years before he became President he changed into a Right to Work supporter, and remained one for the rest of his political career, reflects either gross ignorance or malice on his part. The fact that the Frum Forum could publish such an inane and ill-founded claim suggest “fact checking” is not something David Frum and his cohorts do.

  • Southern Populist

    The author could have saved himself a lot of verbiage by peddling the standard left-wing talking point that “Reagan wouldn’t be welcomed in today’s Republican party” and leaving it at that.

    To be sure, Reagan made many compromises but only to advance other priorities such as tax reform, conservative court appointments, conservative appointments throughout the federal bureaucracy and executive branch, military expansion in Europe, and an enormous military buildup for purposes of opposing the Soviet Union.

    Although Reagan’s opponents on the left despised him for those things, this article portrays Reagan as a closet liberal.

    In the early 1960s, Reagan supported Barry Goldwater for president and spoke out against Medicare in terms that make Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann sound like a socialists.

    He also had the courage to stand up to communism in explicitly moral terms by calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and by taunting Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The left especially despised him for those things and still do to this day.

    - DSP

    • balconesfault

      He also had the courage to stand up to communism in explicitly moral terms by calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and by taunting Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The left especially despised him for those things and still do to this day.

      Great. DSP is now channeling Sinz.

      Who is this “left” who “despises” Reagan for challenging Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall?

      • Southern Populist

        Pretty much the entire left intelligentsia represented by publications like The New Republic and The Nation.

        • Graychin

          That’s ridiculous. I don’t suppose you can back this up with an actual quote?

        • balconesfault

          Of course he can’t. It’s an absolute BS claim.

          I have no doubt that there are many out there – including a lot of serious historians – who believe that Reagan’s rhetoric at the wall is vastly overrrated as a reason for the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. But to head DSP off, it would be idiotic to regard that as ‘disdain’ for that rhetoric. Disdain for over-simplistic historical analysis by partisan lightweights, perhaps.

        • Southern Populist

          To clarify, I’m referring mainly to the left-intelligentsia from Reagan’s era, not today’s intelligentsia. Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was definitely opposed at every turn by the left intelligentsia of his time.

          I will look to dig up some anti-Reagan quotes from today’s intelligentsia later if I have time.

        • balconesfault

          To clarify, I’m referring mainly to the left-intelligentsia from Reagan’s era, not today’s intelligentsia. Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was definitely opposed at every turn by the left intelligentsia of his time.

          There was certainly push-back against Reagan’s “Evil Empire” quote … as well as his “we begin bombing in 5 minutes” joke. Because the “intelligentsia” thought this was crazy-dangerous when dealing with an adversary with as much weaponry as the Soviet Union.

          However … “tear down the wall”? You’re not going to find “disdain” for that, except perhaps from some corners so far out of the mainstream that it’s ridiculous to bring them up.

    • armstp1

      SP,

      Your comment:

      “He also had the courage to stand up to communism in explicitly moral terms by calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire” and by taunting Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. “

      Great Reagan copied Kennedy from 20 years earlier. I guess the “liberals” had already been there and done that….

      Kennedy: “Ich bin ein Berliner”.

      Nearly 5/6th of the entire population of West Berlin was there to hear Kennedy. Reagan did not have the same kind of reception. Kennedy had the balls to give that speech when there was a very real threat of a war with the Russians. Reagan gave that speech when reform was already going on in Russia and Eastern Europe. Reagan was late to the party.

      Europeans, particularly Eastern European, laugh at Americans like you Southern Populist. Most East Europeans could not give a shit what Reagan said at the wall. It had no impact on anything. At best it made conservatives like you feel better about yourself. For Americans to claim some sort of victory in the cold war or in the falling of the Berlin Wall is a joke for most Eastern Europeans. It is like saying Obama’s Cairo speech was responsible for the entire Arab spring. What a joke!

      • Southern Populist

        Actually, they’re much more likely to laugh at people like you who purport to speak for “Eastern Europeans.”

        Your zeal to drop talking points seems to be interfering with your reading comprehension skills. Where did I deny there were other forces at work in the world besides Reagan’s foreign policy and his speech at the wall?

        Where did I say Reagan’s speech even made a difference?

        - DSP

        • armstp1

          “Where did I say Reagan’s speech even made a difference?”

          Why did you even bring up Reagan’s “foreign policy” or speech at the wall? Obviously, you are trying to claim some kind of “courage” or “victory” or whatever.

          Kennedy or “The Liberal” Kennedy threated the Russians with nuclear war during the Cuban missle crisis. Reagan used the full force of the massive U.S. military to invaded the “evil empire” of Grenada. Some communist fighter.

          Reagan was a lightweight compared to “The Liberal” Kennedy.

        • Southern Populist

          Yes, Reagan deserves credit for his courage and vision in opposing the Soviet Union. You and I and the rest of us are operating with the benefit of decades of hindsight. Reagan wasn’t. He had no way of knowing with any certainty the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse.

          Many scholars and analysts take the position that Reagan’s various policies accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union while not being the sole cause of it. That happens to be my position.

          Give some credit where credit is due. Your apparent view — Reagan deserves no credit — is as inaccurate as the view that Reagan deserves all the credit.

        • armstp1

          SP,

          “Many scholars and analysts take the position that Reagan’s various policies accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union while not being the sole cause of it. That happens to be my position. “

          Can you please provide me with any link by anyone credible that proves your statement above?

          The Soviet defense budget during Reagans time actually went down, so don’t tell me his acceleration of Americas defense spending put pressure on the Soviets. And don’t tell me a ridiculous Hollywood speech at The Wall forced the Soviets to do anything.

          By the way, great that Reagan took a “hard” line on the Soviets. But, big deal. Your problem is that you think that “Liberals” did not take an equally hard line or Reagan was something special. I would argue that “the Liberal” Kennedy took a far harder line against the Soviets than Reagan.

          Your statement:

          “The left especially despised him for those things and still do to this day.”

          Is BS? no one on the “left” has despised Reagan for taking a hard line on the Soviets.

        • LFC

          Actually, they’re much more likely to laugh at people like you who purport to speak for “Eastern Europeans.”

          Re-worded, that’s the same as “I know you are but what am I?” Did I just accidentally land in chat room for 3rd graders?

        • Southern Populist

          Your petty remarks are schoolyard material for sure.

    • Primrose

      What made a difference in the cold war was Jimmy Carter’s involvement in Afghanistan. Afghanistan crippled the Soviet Union. That made it seem the only rational solution for Mr. Gorbachev, who paid a significant price and does not get the credit. (In this he is the same as Kruschev who kept the hawks under control in the missile crisis, and got kicked out for all his troubles.

      These are the facts and this fantasy of Mr. Reagen ending the cold war is just that. Had we had Mr. Putin at the helm of the Soviet Union during that same time, Mr. Reagen’s line would have gone down in history as meaningless bit of political theater. It is given undue weight.

      In fact, it might have been actively derided, since I shudder to think what a desperate and broke Premier Putin would have done in the same situation.

      So DSP, I know you claim not to have ever voted Republican, but you are wallowing in cheap sentiment over action, as ever they do. So what that he called them the evil empire, the quieter Mr. Carter actually did something to precipitate their downfall.

      It is not necessary to demonize your enemies to defeat them.

      • Southern Populist

        I’m not wallowing in anything. I’m giving credit where credit is due. As I said above, the view that Reagan deserves no credit is as inaccurate as the view that Reagan deserves all the credit.

        I have not voted for a Republican for president since my first vote in 1996. I vote Republican on down ticket contests occasionally and voted for Ron Paul in the 2008 primary.

  • balconesfault

    Let’s face it – we now live in an America which has the indelible mark/stain of Reaganism.

    Taxes on the wealthiest Americans have been cut to levels which cannot sustain a perpetually massive funding of the military-industrial complex.

    All economic decisions must be judged by how well they meet the goals of Corporate America.

    Virtually any attempt to regulate environmental protection is subject to rollback at any time on the basis of unfavorable cost-benefit analysis and corporate lobbying.

    The GOP of today wants something well to the right of Reaganism. Politicians don’t see Reagan as someone who transformed the country into a place that could have with a little tweaking and some good fortune fostered the Clinton boom and the ensuing balanced budgets and sustainable economic prosperity … but as someone who started a revolution against liberalism that still is far from over.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    i was ready to roll my eyes at the article but I have to say it was nicely written and laid out.
    It was an interesting take but the Democratic party of the early 1970′s was very different from that of Harry Truman so the timeline analogy just doesn’t work, there was no radical takeover of the Democratic party at that time, not like the McGovern crowd. But it was still a nice article.

    • Bingham

      I agree. This is some outside of the box thinking which was still mostly factually accurate in its use of dates and current analogies for Reagan. Refreshing to read, Mr. Kabaservice.

  • jdd_stl1

    How about the Tax Reform Act of 1986 that Reagan signed:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/the-tax-reform-act-of-1986-should-we-do-it-again/

    Quoting from Bartlett’s article:
    Reagan was especially pleased that “millions of the working poor will be dropped from the tax rolls altogether” and that rich people and big corporations would “pay their fair share.” The law was indeed a major accomplishment, one that Reagan had every right to be proud of.

    Can we resurrect Reagan to run in a primary against Obama?