Much of the talk on the right side of the aisle today is centered on who is and is not a real Republican; a real “Ronald Reagan conservative”, to quote Sean Hannity’s false opinion of himself .
This conservative renaissance has taken on a life of its own of late, much of it embodied by the Tea Party movement. Be it a party purity test that Reagan himself couldn’t have passed, or Bob Bennett losing in Utah for not being “conservative enough”, it’s time to look at Reagan for what he was and wasn’t, what he did and didn’t do, and how the movement to deify him as the poster boy for 2010 conservatives is a distortion of his legacy.
It’s hard to go too in depth without writing more than I want to, but after examining his policies, I think it’s fair to say that a 2010 Republican running on Reagan’s platform; of what he actually did, not his rhetoric and ideology; would be rejected by the party base and probably be labeled with the dreaded Republican In Name Only tag. Here’s why:
1. Reagan granted amnesty to illegal immigrants . This is toxic for Republicans in this election cycle. Anything short of “send them all home” is fodder for the party purists. Regardless of ideology, the concept of sending, at a minimum, 12 million people back to country X is impractical and probably not even possible.
As one who believes in pragmatic politics, what Reagan did was right. But where he failed, and where Presidents since have as well, is securing the border. Without a secure border, it’s impossible to prevent illegal immigration.
2. Ronald Reagan raised taxes . True, he also authored one of the largest tax decreases in history, but these days, if you don’t sign Grover Norquist’s no-taxes pledge , you aren’t a real conservative. God forbid we tax fatty food or sodium, things that result in health problems later in life that we all end up paying for through Medicare. That’s a sin in today’s conservative orthodoxy.
3. Ronald Reagan spent us into a deficit . Because of the tax cuts he enacted, coupled with the massive increase in defense spending, our national debt rose from roughly $700 billion to $3 trillion during Reagan’s time in office. We shifted from being the largest creditor in the world to the largest debtor. We also dramatically increased our borrowing from foreign nations , which continues today.
4. Ronald Reagan helped facilitate the Savings and Loan crisis . Not entirely dissimilar from the financial crisis in fall 2008 , the savings and loan crisis ended up being costing $125 billion in a taxpayer-funded bailout. Although the bailout itself didn’t take place when he was in office, he bears some responsibility, as the crisis happened during his time and his policies of deregulation contributed to it.
5. Ronald Reagan compromised . Yes, he is the origin of much of modern conservative dogma, from supply-side economics to the culture war (his greatest failure, in my opinion). But as with any good President, Reagan knew the value of compromise. Partly out of necessity, given that he had to work with a Democratic house for the entirety of his Presidency, but partly because he knew that, despite the need to have a political base, that any base of any party or ideology is not representative of a majority of Americans.
I’m not trying to rain on Reagan’s parade here. The country was a better place the day he left office than the day he took it by most measures. But hearing him discussed today, you’d think he followed the conservative manifesto to a tee, cured cancer, and saved abused puppies in his downtime.
The reality is far different. He was a strong conservative, but he was also a pragmatist when the situation called for it. That pragmatic quality that seems to be lacking in many of today’s conservative voices. The movement as a whole would be well served to try and mimic their hero in that respect, so that America can continue to be that shining city on a hill that Reagan so believed in.