Ronald Reagan's legacy isn't all that conservative, not that it matters.
In his 1966 campaign for governor of California, Ronald Reagan issued what he termed the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign had capsized two years earlier when Nelson Rockefeller effectively slammed the Arizona Senator as too extreme. The division, Reagan believed, had led to the Republican defeat.
Although he was attempting to unseat a fellow Republican, Reagan followed his own advice in his primary bid against Gerald Ford. After losing the first five states he abandoned the strategy in North Carolina, winning his first victory of the campaign. Attacking one’s opponent, it turns out, is good politics even if it’s a fellow Republican.
This is a lesson that Reagan-admirer Newt Gingrich learned the hard way in Iowa after his campaign took a beating from the Romney campaign.
Gingrich has compared himself to Reagan many times, and like Reagan 1976 switch in North Carolina, Gingrich has gone negative in South Carolina despite promising to run a positive campaign. Gingrich is known for changing his positions, however, and in many ways this is also in keeping with the Reagan legacy. The Republican icon is often evoked by modern-day GOP aspirants to higher office. The complex politician, however, is hardly the conservative saint he’s made out to be on the campaign trail.
As Senator Lindsay Graham told Howard Kurtz earlier this primary season, “Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”
Either that or he’d be forced to take Mitt Romney’s route and walk back half the things he did as governor of California, and abandon his record as president.
Here are five more Republican “Commandments” that Reagan broke, and why it really doesn’t matter that Reagan live up to his own legacy – or that any Republican candidates live up to his legacy either.
1. Thou Shalt Not Support Amnesty: Ronald Reagan Signed An Amnesty Bill For 3 Million Undocumented Workers
It’s no surprise that Republicans are struggling to make inroads with Hispanic voters these days. Although the last three Republican presidents have been strong proponents of immigration reform and the positive role immigration plays in this country, the GOP as a party and as a cultural movement is extremely hostile to immigrants. Nativism has been more popular than ever during the recession, with bills like Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 aimed at cracking down on undocumented workers popping up across the country.
At a debate earlier this year Jon Huntsman said that if “President Reagan was here he would speak to the American people and he would lay out in hopeful, optimistic terms.” But Reagan was more than optimistic about immigrants describing America as a shining city on a hill where all who yearned for freedom could come and prosper. In 1986, he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized close to 3 million undocumented immigrants.
In today’s GOP race, virtually every candidate has bandied about the phrase ‘amnesty’ as though it were a dirty word, pandering to the nativist sentiment in the GOP rather than looking at the economic benefits of increased immigration to the United States or discussing seriously the ways we could reform our immigration system.
2. Thou Shalt Not Promote Class Warfare: On Economics, Reagan Advocated Low Taxes and Free Trade but Supported Anti-Poverty Measures
Unlike Rick Perry, who has complained many times during the campaign that most Americans pay no taxes, Reagan was a major proponent of the very tax policies that helped get the working poor off the income tax rolls. As Derek Thompson points out, “Reagan repeatedly praised plans for booting the poor from federal income taxes.” He supported the Earned Income Tax Credit and worked to make low-income families entirely exempt from paying income taxes. And while Newt Gingrich’s food-stamp-king language mirrors Reagan’s welfare-queen rhetoric, Reagan wanted to help the poor not just demonize them.
Reagan was also a union leader and had a deep sympathy for workers that is nowhere to be found in much of today’s GOP. The Wisconsin battle over workers’ rights to collectively bargain illustrates just how far the Republican party has strayed from its roots. While Reagan was able to capture a large segment of working class Democrats thanks to his appeal to workers, today’s Republican party is better suited for the very rich and for social conservatives.
“Collective bargaining,” Reagan once said, “has played a major role in America’s economic miracle. Unions represent some of the freest institutions in this land. There are few finer examples of participatory democracy to be found anywhere.” Of course Reagan became union-buster-in-chief as president, but his message still appealed to working class voters.
3. Thou Shalt Not Raise Taxes: Reagan Raised Taxes Seven Out Of Eight Years In Office
These days, the Fourteenth Commandment of the Republican Party may as well be “Thou Shalt Not Raise Taxes.” Indeed, taxes have become as hot as any of the culture war issues from abortion to gay marriage, especially after the 2008 financial collapse. Reagan campaigned on low taxes and less government regulation, but over the course of his presidency he raised taxes 11 times.
Today’s GOP is much more anti-tax than Reagan was, largely thanks to the hard work of anti-tax crusaders like Grover Norquist. While Reagan promised to shrink government, famously quipping that government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem, his record is much worse than Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Carter doesn’t get much credit for the many industries deregulated under his tenure, but he did far more than Reagan to get government out of the economy. Carter deregulated everything from trucking to airlines to home brewing. Meanwhile Clinton’s welfare reform was much more effective at shrinking the role of the federal government than anything carried out under the Reagan administration.
4. Thou Shalt Not Cut Defense Spending: Reagan’s Long-Term Goal Was Nuclear Disarmament
In his famous “Shining City” speech Reagan said, “We are not a warlike people. Nor is our history filled with tales of aggressive adventures and imperialism, which might come as a shock to some of the placard painters in our modern demonstrations. The lesson of Vietnam, I think, should be that never again will young Americans be asked to fight and possibly die for a cause unless that cause is so meaningful that we, as a nation, pledge our full resources to achieve victory as quickly as possible.”
While Reagan was not afraid to join the arms race against the Soviet Union, his long-term goal was to bring about an end to militarism and the threat of nuclear war. Disarmament loomed large in Reagan’s thinking, and he didn’t always make the best choices in his efforts to achieve that goal. Yet compared to modern-day Republicans, Reagan sounds like a peacenik.
Despite a few notable exceptions, few Republicans want to cut defense spending. Many have even advocated defense spending as a way to create jobs despite rhetoric claiming that government can’t create jobs. A few GOP officials have called for a scaled back defense budget – Ron Paul first among them, though Tom Coburn and others have also made favorable recommendations to the idea. But by and large, the Republican party gives us little reason to believe that they care about disarmament or military prudence.
5. Thou Shalt Demonize Welfare At Every Turn: Reagan Saved Social-Security
Not only did Reagan add 61,000 jobs to the federal workforce – both Obama and Clinton have actually cut back federal jobs – he saved Social Security and raised the payroll tax. Faced with collapse, Reagan bailed out Social Security to the tune of $165 billion.
Compare this to Rick Perry who called the program a “monstrous lie.” Perry has also claimed that Social Security is unconstitutional. Republicans of all stripes have advocated privatizing the retirement insurance program, but it’s unlikely that after George W. Bush’s failed attempt any will give it a real try in the future, despite the fantasy budgets of men like Paul Ryan.
So what should Republicans take from Reagan’s spotty record of flip-flops and broken promises? The presumptive front-runner in the current GOP primary is Mitt Romney, a man with his own record of switching political views to catch favorable political winds. Newt Gingrich is like Reagan only in that he has promoted far more often the expansion of government rather than the shrinking of the state, whatever his over-the-top rhetoric would suggest.
In the end, Reagan’s far more liberal-than-reported legacy will mean only one thing to GOP hopefuls: it doesn’t matter what they do or say or what policies they support. As long as they say the right things to drum up support from the conservative base, their records are as unimportant as Reagan’s. If Reagan can raise taxes, expand the federal government, save the New Deal, and work to bring about nuclear disarmament, disappointing countless conservatives in the process, and yet still become the president who conservatives admire most, why should Republican candidates today act any differently?
George W. Bush certainly learned the lessons of Ronald Reagan, running up the federal deficit by over $4 trillion dollars during his term. He also abandoned anti-immigration advocates and social conservatives, doing as little as Reagan to overturn Roe v. Wade and failing to enact any sort of meaningful immigration reform.
Of course, the fact that Republicans only talk about shrinking government and then fail to do so when in office doesn’t really bother me. The dishonesty rankles, but the failure to scale back the federal government is way down on my list of priorities. What bothers me, and what should bother conservative and liberal voters alike, is not that this anti-government rhetoric isn’t matched with small government actions. The real problem is that Republicans have learned so much disdain for government on the campaign stump that they’ve forgotten how to actually do the hard work of governing once elected to office.
If nothing else, the eight years of Bush help illustrate how an administration more concerned with playing war abroad than actually governing here at home can at once expand the federal government, wrack up trillions of debt, and make the state far less efficient all at the same time.
The lesson of Reagan’s gilded legacy is clear: the talk is far more important than the walk for today’s GOP. As long as you abide by the talking points, the troops will fall in line. How else to explain the success of Mitt Romney, or the unexpected popularity of the once-disgraced Newt Gingrich? The spirit of Reagan does indeed live on in the modern Republican party. It’s just not the Reagan they have in mind.
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