The Democratic Party. Ronald Reagan was for it before he was against it.
This is a point easily forgotten as the former president has been lionized—indeed, beatified—by Republicans upon the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday. Reagan is the icon of the Republican Party. Every Republican political debate turns into a contest to see which candidate can invoke Reagan’s name the most often. And is there any Republican-sponsored earmark, whether it is a courthouse or a freeway or an airport or a post office, that hasn’t been named after him?
And yet, as some of the most honest observers of the 100th anniversary acknowledged, Reagan himself would not fit very well into the contemporary Republican Party, and he might well be labeled a RINO—Republican in Name Only—in a blind-tasting by Tea Party supporters.
After all, Reagan, as governor of California and as president, did many things, that are anathema to 21st century Republican “conservatives.” Among other things, he signed into law amnesty legislation (as president) and abortion legislation (as governor). He appointed the (relatively) moderate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, insuring the survival of Roe v. Wade. He repeatedly raised taxes (according to Bob Herbert in The New York Times, during seven out of the eight years of his presidency). Reagan negotiated with terrorists during the Iran-Contra affair.
Although he inveighed against “big” government, Reagan left the federal government much larger than he found it. Here are some of the facts pointed out by conservative (or perhaps, more accurately, libertarian) economist Murray N. Rothbard, in an article, entitled “The Myth of Reaganomics,” posted on the website of the conservative Ludwig von Mises Institute:
- “In 1980, the last year of free-spending Jimmy Carter the federal government spent $591 billion. In 1986, the last recorded year of the Reagan administration, the federal government spent $990 billion, an increase of 68%.”
- “[F]ederal spending as percent of GNP in 1980 [was] 21.6%, and after six years of Reagan, 24.3%.”
- “A better comparison would be percentage of federal spending to net private product, that is, production of the private sector. That percentage was 31.1% in 1980, and a shocking 34.3% in 1986.”
Then, of course, there is the number one issue on today’s Republican hit parade: deficits. Here, too, Reagan’s record would be a grave disappointment to today’s Tea Party-flavored GOP. Again, quoting from Rothbard: “Jimmy Carter habitually ran deficits of $40-50 billion and, by the end, up to $74 billion; but by 1984, when Reagan had promised to achieve a balanced budget, the deficit had settled down comfortably to about $200 billion.”
Many of the facts cited by Rothbard are also commonly cited by Reagan’s left-leaning critics, like Michael Kinsley, who made many of the same points a couple years ago in a Salon blog post, entitled “How Republicans Misremember Reagan.” Kinsley recently updated his remarks in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, in which he concluded that “Ronald Reagan was a nice enough man, but a terrible president.” I suspect that Rothbard might agree with Kinsley’s conclusion, but I cite Rothbard because it seems to me that that the facts on which the conclusion is based would appear less suspect coming from Rothbard, a leading proponent of the Austrian School of economics that is currently so fashionable among Reaganite commentators, including Glenn Beck.
Perhaps the fairest assessment of Reagan in the 100th anniversary Reagan-fest came from Steven F. Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a two-volume history entitled “The Age of Reagan.” Hayward was recently quoted in The Washington Post as saying of Reagan: “His particular brand of conservatism was idiosyncratic. He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view.”
Idiosyncratic? Unconventional? Isn’t this really just a polite way of calling Reagan a RINO and pointing out that, despite all the reverence for the late president among Republican politicians, if he were alive, he would really not belong in the party of Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, and Michele Bachmann—a party in which you never, never, never even consider the possibility of raising taxes and in which you always, always, always vote to cut government programs (except defense) regardless of the actual impact of the cuts? Based on his record, in today’s political climate, Ronald Reagan would really be a Blue Dog Democrat.
Now, I cede pride of place to no one when it comes to disdain for Ronald Reagan, but, as a simple matter of politics, what profit is there for the Democrats to continue to bash Reagan as a nice man but a lousy president? That battle is lost. Regardless of what lefties and righties might think, Reagan, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has been decreed, by consensus, a Great American President, and that is that. We are not going to convince the mass of the American electorate to believe otherwise. So why fight it?
Instead of using the facts of Reagan’s presidency to attack him, let’s embrace him, let’s applaud him for his flexibility in recognizing that, however worthy the goals of cutting taxes and reducing the size of government might be in concept, they sometimes have to give way to realities of everyday governance. Let’s ask: what would Reagan do? Let’s use Reagan to critique the Paul Ryans and Grover Norquists and Chris Christies and Rick Perrys, who would slash government spending and veto any tax increase regardless of the consequences. They can have their Ronald Reagan, but we can have ours—and ours will be the real Ronald Reagan, the one based on historical fact, not hagiography.
Reagan will never be a political hero to Democrats, like Roosevelt or Kennedy or Clinton or, sometimes, Obama. He will never be a politician Democrats love or even like, but Democrats may win over some independents if Reagan is at least treated as a politician Democrats don’t hate. Reagan once served as president of a union (the Screen Actors Guild) and was a registered Democrat before he converted to the “conservative” cause. The time has come to bring him back into the fold. Welcome home, Ronnie.