Earlier this month, Jon Stewart humorously contrasted the difference between Governor Sarah Palin’s perception of President Ronald Reagan and his actual record. During an appearance on Fox News’ Hannity, Palin blasted the current president for seeking nuclear arms reductions, declaring, “We miss Ronald Reagan, who used to say, when he looked at our enemies, you lose, we win.” As Stewart pointed out near the end of this clip, however, in an April 30, 1984, speech at Shanghai’s Fudan University, Reagan proclaimed, “We must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of this earth.”
Palin’s statement was not the only recent high-profile Republican mischaracterization of the Gipper. At a January 2010 meeting in Hawaii, members of the Republican National Committee considered a resolution that would require candidates to support at least eight of ten listed policy stances in order to be eligible for campaign funding from the national party. The proposal was entitled “Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” a tribute to the former president’s alleged declaration that “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and ally – not a 20 percent traitor.” Ironically, even a cursory review of Reagan’s decades-long policy record would indicate that the former president would not pass the test named in his honor. Tim Mak has already pointed this out on FrumForum, with John Nichols of The Nation going as far as to argue that Reagan’s actions in public office would not pass muster with even a single one of the ten resolution criteria.
Reagan nostalgia is not at all new among Republicans, but is altogether understandable given the widely-acknowledged transformational nature of his presidency. He is a larger-than-life figure in American politics, due to his bringing together a wide swath of Americans as part of his “Reagan Revolution” electoral coalition, presiding over the end of the Cold War, and, notably, his charisma – even Democrats give him credit for being “The Great Communicator.” It is thus a no-brainer that Republican leaders would seek to venerate him, and in doing so, hope to capture some of his luster. But the act of doing so, over and over and over again in the many years since the end of his presidency, has resulted in the blurring of his legacy. Reagan has become a blank slate upon which Republicans of all sorts project their most idealized hopes and wishful thinking.
While many in the GOP choose to remember Reagan as a doctrinaire conservative who might have supported the Tea Party movement, they conveniently forget the pragmatism that underlined his conservative principles. An avowed budget hawk, he nonetheless ran up huge deficits in order to finance a military buildup to intimidate the Soviet Union. The Americans for Tax Reform organization was founded in 1985 at his urging, and today a multitude of Republican candidates and officeholders sign their “Taxpayer Protection Pledge’ to oppose any and all tax increases. Reagan, however, raised taxes at multiple points during his tenure as Governor of California – in order to balance the state budget – and as president – partly in order to both simplify and broaden the tax code. Another reason he raised taxes as president, in fact, was to help pay for “government-run health care” in the form of Social Security: the Social Security Amendments of 1983 that he signed into law both accelerated an increase in the payroll tax and increased the proportion of benefits eligible as taxable income. The move arguably saved the program from fiscal insolvency, at least in the short term. And yes, Reagan granted amnesty – read again, amnesty – to roughly 3 million illegal immigrants by signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law in 1986. Why? Probably because he believed it was the right solution for a growing problem. “I am pleased to sign this bill into law,” he declared at the signing ceremony at the Statue of Liberty. “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.”
Reagan famously commended Republicans for “raising a banner of bold colors – no pale pastels,” but I daresay his achievements in office are colored by a streak of what some of today’s so-called conservatives might chide as something less than conservatism. Reagan might argue that the difference between rhetoric and governing can be measured by results.