Ronald Reagan is the patron saint for Republicans, just as John F. Kennedy is for Democrats. But parties evolve, and just as a Democrat with Kennedy’s views on foreign policy (“pay any price, bear any burden”) couldn’t be nominated today, the late Reagan might not be able win a Tea Party primary.
After all, he raised the debt ceiling 18 times during his eight years in office, signed one major tax increase into law, and let several other small tax increase take effect, too. And his tenure produced some of the most infamous examples of government waste, like the expenditures of the "star wars" program and the Pentagon's notorious $600 toilet seat cover.
“He’s dangerously liberal,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “He raised taxes, was liberal on some social issues, and he changed his mind a lot depending on the circumstances.”
Former advisor Ed Meese has a different take, saying the Tea Party embodies Reagan’s principles of constitutional government and a strong defense. “He’d be as competitive as he was in 1980,” Meese insists. Reagan’s robust conservatism was new and a bit scary then, and he lost Iowa to moderate George H.W. Bush who boasted he had the momentum (the “big mo”) before Reagan bested him in New Hampshire.
Reagan then tapped James Baker, who had run two campaigns against him (Bush in ’80; Gerald Ford in ’76), to be White House chief of staff. “It was a measure of the broad-based nature of the guy,” Baker recalls, seeing in that decision three decades ago a lesson that may still apply today.
“I get asked what would Reagan think of the Tea Party, and I say, I think he would be out there leading the charge,” Baker tells The Daily Beast. “Remember how radical people thought he was—a shoot from the hip cowboy actor—and then look what he did when he got in there… Most people found he wasn’t extreme at all.”
Despite his record, Reagan managed to sustain his image as a tax cutter and opponent of big government. Aides found a euphemism that made it easier for Reagan to accept increasing taxes, calling them “revenue enhancements.”
Baker isn’t taking sides in the primary, but says candidates shouldn’t be judged solely by their red-meat rhetoric. “Politics is a blood sport, but it’s quite something else when they have to face the prospect and the difficulty of governing.”
Whether Reagan could win or not, there's no doubting his relevance in the GOP has waned with the crowd running this time. “The center has disappeared—not many of us left anymore,” Baker concedes. That Reagan could be counted as a centrist is evidence enough of the new Republican Party, which paid homage on Reagan's 100th anniversary of his birth in February but since have spoke little of him.
During the debt ceiling debate, Reagan’s name came up every day, but not from Republicans. It was President Obama who invoked the former president, asking why today’s Republicans couldn’t be more like Reagan, while Democrats dug up a 24-year-old audio tape of Reagan saying he wouldn’t think of defaulting on the nation’s debt.
Four years ago, Republicans fell all over each other genuflecting before the memory of their most popular recent president. This cycle they’ve been more restrained. In last month’s Republican debate, only Newt Gingrich mentioned Reagan’s name; it was the former speaker’s attempt to burnish his governing credentials. In truth, Gingrich was a backbencher during the Reagan years, lobbing bombshells at the White House in addition to Democrats. He had excoriated Reagan for the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 which—shudder—raised taxes. Gingrich accused Reagan of “trying to score a touchdown for liberalism.”
The Republican Party has moved steadily to the right since Reagan left the White House. Just as Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford couldn’t get nominated in Reagan’s Republican Party, Reagan might be the odd man out when the current crop of candidates takes the stage at the Reagan Library on September 7.
The eight candidates debating in the very long shadow of Reagan will pay their obligatory respects to his memory. But with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, the most liberal and the lowest-polling in the group, none can easily lay claim to the Reagan legacy. “I’m sure Huntsman will try to emphasize he’s the real Reagan heir, recalling that Reagan was flexible and pragmatic and knew how to appeal to Democrats,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont-McKenna College.
If Reagan is less relevant today, a lot of it is the passage of time. It has been seven years since he passed from the scene; 17 years since he announced he had Alzheimer’s, and 22 years since he left office. None of the students in Pitney’s classes this fall were born when Reagan was in the White House. The only presidents they remember are George W. Bush and Obama.
Since Bush left the White House, the GOP has lurched further right mainly because of the Tea Party influence but also as a reaction to Obama. The currently president is the antithesis of the gun-toting, real and rural America that is the Tea Party ideal, currently embodied in the latest entrant to the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
On the stump, Perry laments that nearly half of all Americans don’t pay any income tax. Reagan had something to do with that. “Reagan was very proud of the 1986 tax reform which took millions of poor people off the tax rolls,” Pitney says. “For years, Republicans were saying what a great thing this was; now they’re opposed, which is bizarre.”
Noting that the only way for an anti-tax party to fix the situation would be to raise the taxes of all those slackers, Pitney adds, “If I were advising Governor Perry, I would ask him if he really wants to raise taxes on 50 percent of the people.”
Perry was a Democrat during the Reagan administration, and in 1988 managed Al Gore’s campaign in Texas. He’s not alone in being unable to claim ties to Reagan. When Mitt Romney was running for the Senate in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy, he stressed that he had been an Independent during the Reagan years. Ron Paul ran against Reagan in 1984 as a Libertarian. Michele Bachmann had campaigned for Jimmy Carter, but became a Republican by the time Reagan was in office.
Reagan was a pragmatic politician. As governor of California, he signed a bill that liberalized the state’s abortion laws, and as president he privately railed against what he called “professional conservatives…who want me to jump off the cliff with the flag flying.” He had a Democratic House throughout his presidency, which meant compromise in order to get anything done. “His real skill, he knew how to adjust to the times,” says Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “If he were running today, he would be a different candidate.”
The iconic memory of bipartisanship then was Reagan sitting down after-hours with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill trading stories and talking about their Irish heritage. It didn’t stop O’Neill from calling out Reagan for trash-talking “welfare queens,” but there was a warmth there that today’s Tea Partiers probably wouldn’t abide—at least judging by their reaction to Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to forge a deficit deal with Obama.
Reagan was a former Democrat, had voted three times for FDR, and he had his own rules of engagement when it came to the other party. Mari Maseng Will, a speechwriter in the White House during Reagan’s first term, remembers the president telling his staff not to attack anyone by name, and not to attack Democrats. The only group that it was okay to assail, she says, was liberals. Reagan probably did more than any other politician to turn “liberal” into a dirty word, but he didn’t poison the well with the opposition the way Obama seems to have done when he takes on the GOP.
Obama has openly admired Reagan, beginning in the 2008 campaign when he told an interviewer that Reagan was a transformational president because his policies changed the direction of the country. The remark angered the Clintons, who saw it in the heat of the primary battle as a thinly veiled slap at their time in the White House. Historians agree that Reagan had a huge impact, and even those, like Obama, who opposed much of what he did, see him as transformational.
Whether a worthy successor will emerge from the current field is open to question. Nancy Reagan, for one, appears to be hedging her bets. She invited Marco Rubio to speak at the Reagan library last month, his first major speech since winning his Florida Senate. A likely contender for the VP spot on the ticket in 2012, Rubio caught the 90-year-old former first lady as she was about to take a tumble. That’s a maneuver Republicans hope he can repeat for the party.