The Republicans' Reagan Amnesia

The resurgent GOP wants a Gipper purity test. Does the party faithful know he raised taxes, grew the federal government, and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants?

Library of Congress / Newscom

Republicans love hallowing Ronald Reagan’s name. Too bad they know so little about the guy.

Last week in Hawaii, the Republican National Committee almost passed a resolution named after the Gipper. “Whereas President Ronald Reagan believed that the Republican Party should support and espouse conservative principles and public policies,” it declared, only candidates who complied with eight of 10 “Reaganite” principles would be eligible for party funds.

The GOP isn’t as close to a political rebirth as its boosters believe.

And what were those principles, exactly? No. 1—according to the resolution—was “smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes.” Let’s take those from the top. Smaller government: Federal employment grew by 61,000 during Reagan’s presidency—in part because Reagan created a whole new cabinet department, the department of veterans affairs. (Under Bill Clinton, by contrast, federal employment dropped by 373,000). Smaller deficits and debt: Both nearly tripled on Reagan’s watch. Lower taxes: Although Reagan muscled through a major tax cut in 1981, he followed up by raising taxes in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1986. In 1983, in fact, he not only raised payroll taxes; he raised them to pay for Social Security and Medicare. Let’s put this in language today’s tea-baggers can understand: Reagan raised taxes to pay for government-run health care.

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Then there’s plank number five: Reaganite candidates must “oppos[e] amnesty for illegal immigrants.” Really? Because if you look up the word “amnesty” in Black’s Law Dictionary, you’ll find a reference to the 1986 bill that Reagan signed, which ended up granting amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants.

Then there’s foreign policy. Plank number six demands that candidates back the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what did Reagan do in his biggest confrontation with jihadist terror? When Hezbollah murdered 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut in 1983, the Gipper didn’t surge; he withdrew the remaining American troops, and fast. Plank number 7 calls for “effective [read military] action to eliminate” Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs. But Reagan condemned Israel’s 1981 preventive strike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor. And plank number nine requires steadfast opposition to abortion. Yet two of Reagan’s three Supreme Court nominees voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. Turns out this Reagan guy wasn’t really that Reaganite after all.

Why does this Republican amnesia about Reagan matter? Because it shows that the GOP isn’t as close to a political rebirth as its boosters believe. Reagan succeeded because he married a reputation for principle with an instinct for pragmatism. When Republicans lost big in the 1982 midterm elections because Democrats accused them of wanting to privatize Social Security, Reagan abandoned the idea and instead made a deal with Democrats that raised taxes and saved the program. In 1984, when his advisers told him that Americans considered him too warlike, he responded with a series of breathtakingly dovish speeches about his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons that helped ensure his landslide re-election. In 1981, he nominated the socially moderate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, even though Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders cried betrayal.

That was the real Reagan, the one Republicans need to embrace if they’re to genuinely threaten Barack Obama’s chances of re-election. Instead, they’ve reinvented the Gipper as a Sarah Palin-style zealot. Party activists always want to believe they can win elections without compromising their ideological purity, and the GOP’s recent string of off-year victories has convinced the conservative base that most Americans are tea-baggers at heart. But the tea-bag movement is dominated by graying white Anglos, at a time when the American electorate is growing less white, less Anglo and less gray. Demographically, American politics is being transformed by the dramatic growth of Hispanics, and by the emergence of a vast (and heavily non-white) “millennial” generation, larger in number than the baby boomers. Both groups went heavily for the Democrats in 2004 and 2008. And in their economic and cultural views, both are light years away from the tea-bag GOP.

These realities will be easy to overlook this year, because minorities and the young turn out in lower numbers in midterm elections, and because when unemployment is at 10 percent, the party in power suffers no matter what. But ultimately, the GOP’s fortunes will rest on its capacity to make inroads in these two groups. The angry white geezer vote alone won’t do it.

That’s why many of the smartest conservative intellectuals—from David Brooks to David Frum to Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam—believe the GOP must become less ideologically doctrinaire. In this effort, the real Ronald Reagan could be a useful model. Of course, were he around today, he’d have a tough time getting funding from the RNC.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June.