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Ronald Reagan remains the modern Republican Party’s most durable hero. His memory will be hailed as The Great Uncompromiser by those who insist the GOP must never flag in its support for smaller government, lower taxes and conservative social values.
His record tells a different story.
During Reagan’s eight years in the White House, the federal payroll grew by more than 300,000 workers. Although he was a net tax cutter who slashed individual income-tax rates, Reagan raised taxes about a dozen times.
His rhetoric matched that of many of today’s most ardent Christian conservatives, yet he proved to be a reluctant warrior on abortion and other social issues. Perhaps most tellingly, he was willing to cut deals, working closely with Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts to overhaul Social Security and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois to revamp the tax code.
That record prompted President Barack Obama in April to invoke a predecessor’s words about tax fairness, quoting a story about an executive who paid lower tax rates than his secretary and millionaires who exploited loopholes to pay no taxes while a bus driver paid his fair share.
“That wild-eyed socialist, tax-hiking class warrior was Ronald Reagan,” Obama said.
It isn’t that Reagan wasn’t a true believer. He was simply more complicated than that. “Reagan was a splendid politician,” said Lou Cannon, who has written five books about the 40th president. “He didn’t personally think compromise was bad. It’s what he did rather than what he said. He gave the right rhetoric but his policies were centrist.”
That willingness to compromise is what led former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to tell a group of Bloomberg editors in June that Reagan “would have a hard time” leading the Republican Party if it gets to a place where orthodoxy doesn’t allow for disagreement.
One of Reagan’s strengths was his ability to create a compelling narrative about America and its role in the world. “A Time for Choosing,” the talk Reagan delivered on behalf of Barry Goldwater that aired nationwide on Oct. 27, 1964, didn’t help much at the polls; it did launch one of the most successful political careers of the 20th century.
Reread the speech today, and you will see the themes Reagan returned to, as governor of California, as White House candidate and, finally, as a two-term president. “This is the issue of this election,” declared Reagan almost 50 years ago. “Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little, intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol (sic) can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Those words are vintage Reagan, which explains why Senator Jim DeMint is quick with his answer to those who say Reagan wouldn’t have a home in today’s Republican Party.
“That’s nonsense,” says the South Carolina Republican and hero of the Tea Party movement.
Yet Reagan understood the difference between a speech meant to attract voters and governance designed to achieve larger goals.
He was politically supple, a master at finding that connective tissue between actions and words. He was willing to accept tax increases if he could obtain a broader overhaul of the tax code, and a larger government if that meant increases in defense spending.
He won over Southern evangelicals who thought he was in lockstep with them in opposing abortion, and then he spoke to their mass rallies only via teleconference, with no image of him on the scene. He appointed moderate judges such as Sandra Day O’Connor.
Then there is the ironic push of Reagan’s legatees to name highways, buildings and schools for him, cost be damned. Not to mention the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a 3.1-million-square-foot structure, which is the largest office building in Washington.
The Republican Party that Mitt Romney will lead after he accepts the nomination this Thursday is in transition, with an anti-tax, anti-government energy that has stoked enthusiasm while almost guaranteeing the partisanship that has left Washington so paralyzed will deepen.
Romney is still viewed with skepticism by many Tea Party backers, which may help explain why he picked Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate. “He reminds us of Ronald Reagan,” Nancy Milholland, co-organizer of the Tea Party chapter in Racine, Wisconsin, said of Ryan. “He’s like the second coming of Reagan. It’s like he’s channeling Ronald Reagan. He even looks like Reagan.”
In its quest for another Reagan, the party has been driving out members deemed too moderate or accommodative. Senator Richard Lugar was one of Reagan’s most loyal supporters in the U.S. Senate in the 1980s, but the Indiana Republican was defeated by a primary challenger who sees DeMint as a role model.
“The idea is not simply to boost the Republican Party but it is to purify the party, and if this requires two or four or six years, so be it,” Lugar said. “The need to move the middle-of-the-roaders, moderates, out of the picture is an insistent one.” While Lugar says Reagan would recognize the Republican Party today, “he would find it a much more difficult group of people with whom to work.”
Even Goldwater might have trouble navigating some Republican lanes today. Goldwater, who died in 1998, criticized the rise of religious conservatives in the party and in his later years came to support gay rights and abortion rights.
Republican presidents in the last generation also have pursued policies that would have gained little traction in today’s GOP. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been targeted by some conservatives for elimination. He also advocated wage-and-price controls. George H.W. Bush pushed the Americans with Disabilities Act. George W. Bush expanded Medicare by providing a prescription-drug benefit, one of many measures that substantially increased the federal budget deficit.
Reagan did have an advantage in keeping his party united that doesn’t exist today: The Cold War. “The glue that held Republicans together in the Reagan era was anti-communism, anti- Soviet,” said Cannon. “That’s the reason Reagan was transformational. But once the Soviet Union disappeared,” he adds, “there was no glue to hold the party together.”
While Reagan railed against Big Government, he supported Big Business; after his Hollywood career cooled, Reagan made his living as a spokesman for General Electric. Big Business is one area where DeMint and his Tea Party colleagues may diverge from Reagan’s beliefs, at least to the degree that corporations use the levers of power in Washington to gain advantage through changes in regulation and tax policy.
“What the Republican Party needs to communicate to business is that the business of America is business, but the business of business is not to come to Washington to look for some kind of handout or loophole or to get us to pick winners and losers,” DeMint says. “And that’s what we’ve got in the business community now with some of the big players.”
He says, “they figure they’ve got a better shot of getting something through legislation than they have through competition, and Republicans can’t be a part of that.”
DeMint says that also means it will be harder to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year when tax cuts expire and mandatory spending cuts are imposed. “It’s a critical time because if we go too much further with the public depending on government and business dependent on government, it’s going to be difficult to turn that around in an election. This could be our last chance to get it right,” he said.
Tip O’Neill was only half right when he called Reagan “an amiable dunce,” yet only in today’s climate does one realize just how critical the amiability part was. Reagan liked to negotiate with Rostenkowski over drinks at the White House, and according to Jim Jaffe, Rostenkowski’s press secretary, each man knew the value of giving something to get something.
“When we were growing up, the social skills of politicians were to get along with everybody,” Jaffe said. “That’s something that doesn’t exist anymore.” Richard Norton Smith, a historian at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and former director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library, is among those who questioned whether Reagan would find a home in today’s Republican Party.
“When he ran in 1980 he felt the need to tip his hat toward moderate Republicans, even toward the Roosevelt consensus that governed,” said Smith, who also directed the libraries of four other Republican presidents. “Reagan very shrewdly had been a big-tent Republican and recognized at that point in time that there were a fairly significant number of moderate, liberal Republicans who could be wooed into the tent.”
Since the time of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party has been made up of disparate factions. Today, the party is closer to monolithic than at any time since. Smith insists that Reagan “would barely recognize the degree to which not only have conservatives consolidated their control but conservatism itself has been redefined.”
How would Reagan have adapted to today’s political world? It’s a fun question to debate, with, of course, no certain answer. “Reagan demonstrated skill and dexterity,” said Smith. “He kept the big picture in mind.” It is a measure of Reagan’s gifts as strategist and tactician that one of the closing lines of “A Time for Choosing” came not from a hero of conservatism but from the famous 1936 speech of that Democratic Party rabble rouser, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “You and I,” said Reagan, “have a rendezvous with destiny.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Tackett in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Clark Hoyt at Choyt2@bloomberg.net