What Reagan Could Tell the Right

In slamming health-care reform, GOP leaders proudly claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Yet they’re ignoring how Reagan deftly distanced himself from the far right.

11.14.09 6:49 PM ET

On the steps of Capitol Hill, at last week’s Republican-sponsored anti-health-care reform rally, actor Jon Voight told thousands of activists that President Obama’s agenda threatened to destroy democracy. Obama “has had 20 years of subconscious programming by Reverend Wright to damn America," Voight thundered. The president, he claimed, “has his own obsession with trying to ram this health bill through to create a socialist America.” House Minority Leader John Boehner echoed that Obama’s plan is the “greatest threat to freedom” in his lifetime, while rally organizer Rep. Michele Bachmann declared: “It was Thomas Jefferson who said a revolution every now and then is a good thing.”

On the broad issue of how to handle extremism in his ranks, Reagan was defter than his current conservative counterparts. For the most part, he used the fringe for his own purposes and kept himself from being used.

One sign bore a picture of Dachau’s concentration camp’s victims and likened the president’s  “National Socialist Health Care” plan to the Holocaust. Another sign charged that Obama “takes his orders from the Rothchilds”—a baldly anti-Semitic theory about Jewish global dominance. “Ken-ya Trust Obama?” still another demonstrator wondered. Boehner deflected questions about the protests by simply saying that he failed to see any evidence of intolerance when he was on stage. Minority Whip Eric Cantor merely dismissed displays of bigotry as “not…very helpful” to the conservative agenda.

These Republicans routinely proclaim themselves to be acting in the tradition of Ronald Reagan. Yet they have ignored one of Reagan’s most complicated and intriguing political legacies—how he handled the extreme right.

While the hard-liners of 2009 venerate Reagan as their patron saint, the reality is that Reagan caromed between two opposite positions throughout his political career. At times, he embraced extremist politics, while in other moments he adopted a brand of pragmatism and moderation, expunging fringe elements from his party’s ranks with cold skill and workmanlike efficiency.

Reagan’s heaviest flirtation with the extreme right was in the early 1960s, prior to his decision to run for governor during the rise of the Goldwater movement. Reagan relied on shrill language, associated with dubious causes and public figures, and glided effortlessly through the far-right world of California 's flourishing conservative movement.

For example, he claimed that the Cold War would “determine whether the world can exist half-slave and half-free.” He even linked John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier to “Big Brother” and “Karl Marx” in a letter he had written to Richard Nixon.

“There is nothing new in the idea of [big] government,” Reagan said. “Hitler called his [program] ‘State Socialism,’ and way before him it was [called] ‘benevolent monarchy.’”

Reagan’s broadsides didn’t end there. He shared a stage with Christian Anti-Communist Crusade leader Frederick Schwarz, delivered a keynote at a fundraiser for a leader of the John Birch Society and member of Congress (Birch founder Robert Welch had labeled Ike a “dedicated…agent of the Communist conspiracy”), and attempted to discredit Medicare and other health-care reforms as steps on the road to socialist destruction. On a record album circulated to doctor’s wives, Reagan warned that “one of the traditional methods of imposing… socialism on a people has been by way of medicine.”

Reagan’s affair with the fringe, however, quietly ended when Barry Goldwater went down to disastrous defeat in 1964. Reagan had used the far right to gain political prominence, but after he tossed his hat in the ring for California governor in 1966, he tacked in a new direction. He now intuited the danger that the extremist label posed to his political viability. He persuaded two moderates, Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts, who had handled liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign in 1964, to manage his campaign—overcoming their fears that he was “a real right-winger.” He hired younger conservatives, including Tom Reed and Lyn Nofziger, as senior aides, not only because they were competent but also because they had avoided taint by association with Goldwater’s campaign.

When Congressman John Rousselot, a Bircher, approached Reagan at a campaign event, Reagan’s aides blocked his path to prevent photographers from capturing an image of the two men together. When Reagan issued a campaign statement repudiating Robert Welch’s crackpot theories about Eisenhower’s supposed secret allegiance to communism, he insisted on his own version of conservatism—not endorsing others’. A pattern in Reagan’s career could be glimpsed.

As governor, Reagan signed a liberal abortion-rights law, enacted the highest tax increase in state history, and provided protections for California’s rivers and parks. Yet, to advance his presidential ambitions, Reagan continued to flirt with the politics of extremism and courted archconservatives. At a 1980 presidential campaign rally in Philadelphia, Mississippi, he notoriously defended the concept of “states' rights.” Speaking in the place where three civil-rights workers had been slain in 1964, Reagan’s use of the code words implied that he was sympathetic to some white Southerners’ die-hard devotion to Jim Crow. Indeed, on issues of race in general, according to Emory University historian Joseph Crespino, Reagan showed a “real blind spot.” He not only nominated anti-civil-rights law professor Robert Bork to the Supreme Court but also endorsed tax exemptions for segregated Southern schools.

Still, he wasn’t consistent on such hot-button topics as race and gender, nor was he uniformly dogmatic. As president, he wasn’t able to restrict abortion rights significantly, as he had vowed to do. He renewed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and reluctantly signed legislation declaring Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. While Reagan courted the religious right—“You can’t endorse me, but I endorse you,” he told a gathering of right-wing evangelicals in 1984—he kept a careful arm's-length relationship. He never attended the large annual antiabortion rallies in Lafayette Park across the White House, always phoning in.

Reagan’s approach to global affairs turned out to be much more of a radical departure. He upended his past convictions in his second term, dispensing with his single-minded anticommunism while embracing arms control with the Soviet Union and proclaiming the end of the Cold War. If his actions bewildered his most hawkish supporters and left some of them feeling betrayed, Reagan nonetheless refused to cater blindly as president to their hard-line views and positions.

The politics of the present inevitably colors how we view the past. In contrast to last week's Hill rally, Reagan's actions might appear now to be milder and relatively more temperate than they seemed to many during his three-decade political career. On the broad issue of how to handle extremism in his ranks, Reagan was defter than his current conservative counterparts. For the most part, he used the fringe for his own purposes and kept himself from being used.

If Boehner and other leaders of the conservative movement embrace a similar approach rooted in conviction, then they will have a firmer basis for the claim that they are Reagan’s true heirs in the health-care debate, and in the emerging post-Reagan America.

Matthew Dallek, a Shapiro Fellow at George Washington University ’s School of Media and Public Affairs, is the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics.