Saturday, August 24, 2013


By Ronald Fox

Among Republican faithful, Ronald Reagan is, “The Man,” wise, omniscient, inspiring, infallible, an ideologically pure, true believer in conservative principles; the founder of modern conservatism. What Republican candidate for high office wouldn’t want to invoke the Reagan name as his guiding light? Referring to oneself as a Reagan Republican is often all that is needed to establish conservative credentials. But, what does it mean to be a Reagan Republican? Would Ronald Reagan, himself, fit in with today's Republican mainstream?

This is a difficult question, for there were two Reagans: Reagan I, the tough-talking, first term President, and Reagan II, the maturing President who demonstrated a pragmatic inclination to get things done. 

Reagan I, early in office, cut taxes and government spending, deregulated economic and financial institutions, fired striking air traffic controllers, took on the environmental geeks, supported murderous, right-wing rebels in Latin America, closed his eyes to South Africa’s apartheid regime, aggressively supported every new military weapons program brought to his attention, and frequently consulted Jesus for guidance. He distrusted academics and all forms of expertise that didn’t align with his views. He offered uninformed, simplistic oratory, made frequent gaffes, which instead of inspiring ridicule only endeared him further to his essentially white base. He spoke the language of average Americans. W

While anti-government in his rhetoric, he used government to advance the power and prerogatives of corporate America, which he believed was just reward for their hard work and initiative. He exuded love of country and helped people set aside bad feelings left over from the Vietnam War experience. No wonder he tugs at the heart strings of tea partiers and most of the GOP faithful.

This is the Reagan conservatives seem to be talking about when they invoke his name as their patron saint. But there’s another Ronald Reagan, Reagan II, who began as early as his second year in office to practice a brand of conservatism that strayed far from the right-wing virtues described above.

On many accounts Ronald Reagan was a successful president, probably the most successful conservative leader in the last century, but he wasn’t successful in the way today’s conservative hero-worshippers believe. Reagan was essentially an achievement-driven, pragmatist, which in practice meant abandoning ideological dogma and compromising with Democrats when he deemed it necessary. Sure he cut taxes, to their lowest level ever in 1981, but soon after agreed to restore more than a third of the cut. This represented the largest, single tax increase in American history. He would go on in his first term to close tax loopholes, raise the gas tax by five cents, and push a payroll-tax increase that would help fund Medicare and Social Security. In his second term he supported the Tax Reform Act, which would hit businesses with an additional $420 billion in added fees. Faced with government deficits, the post-1981 Reagan displayed a willingness to raise revenue to close the gap.

Despite his tax increases, the gap, however, would grow because he didn’t fulfill his campaign promise to significantly cut spending. During his presidency, federal employment grew by more than 60,000. He would watch the gap between revenue and spending triple and the national debt spike from $700 billion to $3 trillion. As he matured in office, his instinct for fairer economic outcomes seemed to guide him more than his conservative ideology.

I don’t know if this switch represented a change of heart, or simply a response to political reality, or a little of both; nevertheless, it represented a significant departure from his rhetoric and professed ideology. Support for such fiscal policies by a Republican today would not be tolerated by the party’s conservative base. It would likely mean an end to a political career. This pragmatic, tax increasing, compromising Reagan is surely not the model contemporary Republicans speak of so fondly.  

As a columnist as well as campaigner, Ronald Reagan displayed a heavy dose of hawkish rhetoric. He would restore our military and kick ass with our enemies. In office, however, he displayed a more dovish disposition. As President, he proved to be reluctant to use force, even in response to direct attacks, such as the terrorist bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans. His response was to withdraw all remaining American troops in Lebanon. Can you imagine the conservative reaction to Obama were he to act similarly?

Reagan defied hawkish advisers that wanted to send troops to Nicaragua in support of the Contras, though he wasn’t averse to finding a creative way to fund them. He tried to get American hostages held by Hezbollah released, not by threats and use of force, but by selling arms to its benefactor, Iran, in violation of our constitutional system of checks and balances. No strict constructionist here.

Probably worst of all, he not only disregarded conservative opposition to the SALT II nuclear arms reduction treaty, but went on to propose new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks with the Soviet Union to dramatically reduce strategic nuclear weapons. And, this wasn't all.  In a 1986 meeting in Reykjavik with Mikhail Gorbachev, he proposed the elimination of all nuclear weapons in 10 years, an idea that almost resulted in a treaty, but was scuttled  at the last minute by Reagan's insistence on continuing research outside the laboratory on his Strategic Defense Initiative. In saying that nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought, a statement that contradicts the logic of deterrence, President Reagan revealed himself as a closet nuclear abolitionist. Even his closest advisers were shocked.

Reagan did indeed spend a lot of dollars on defense, which greatly pleased the military and its contractors, but his numerous displays of “softness” in foreign and security policies and his nuclear-free world ambition infuriated many in his inner circle, as well as many hawkish members of Congress. Such behavior would have caused outrage in today’s conservative circles.

Obama’s failure to better secure the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and immediately label its attack as a terrorist event, his reluctance to directly arm rebels in Syria, and his expressed willingness to engage the Iranians in nuclear weapons negotiations without preconditions has brought him blistering attacks from the right. Reagan’s cautious response to direct threats and his secret dealing with our avowed enemy were far more serious challenges to conservative values than the transgressions for which Obama has been skewered. His modern-day conservative, worshipers seem to have forgotten this part of Reagan’s legacy.

There were also a number of Reagan modern-day, conservative social transgressions. As Governor of California he signed a law legalizing millions of abortions and opposed a proposition that would have prohibited gay men and women from working in public schools. As President, he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to millions of aliens, and, horrors, appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, a woman reputed to be pro-choice. No social progressive, Reagan was politically shrewd enough to steer clear of divisive social issues. This provided him political space to focus on priorities he deemed more important, like reducing deficits, spurring job creation, strengthening the military’s capacity to meet global challenges, and solving the immigration problem.

It’s fun to speculate as to what Reagan would do if he were president today. Which Reagan would surface: the tough-minded, anti-tax/anti-government crusader of his early first term, or the post-1981 pragmatist? Would Reagan today oppose Obamacare, gun control, and immigration reform? Would he refuse to regulate financial institutions and oil companies, oppose stimulation of the economy, further cut taxes, fully embrace the austerity agenda, and play the fiscal cliff game, as current mainstream Republicans have done?

One can’t be certain. Times are different, but if his notable political savvy and record of pragmatism and compromise is any guide, he would not be comfortable with the uniformly extremist and rigid stances taken by his party. He would likely be deeply concerned by the declining appeal of the GOP among women, Latinos, and young voters. His charm and sunny disposition would also not square well with today’s dour and gloomy far right loyalists. Mostly, though, his drive to get things done would find him troubled by the obstructionist propensity of his fellow Republicans.

Despite their constant invoking of his name, few Republicans today embody the reality of Reagan in office. They wouldn’t dare. That’s too bad, for a Reagan II form of conservatism would not only revitalize the GOP, but enable a more meaningful and productive political discourse than what we’ve become accustomed to. Supply-side Republicans and demand-side Democrats would still battle it out philosophically, but in the end, find common ground to get things done. That’s what Reagan would do.



  1. I have heard in the past that it was actually Gorbachev who proposed dismantling all nukes (?)

    Jeb Bush offered some similar thoughts; stating that neither Reagan nor his father could earn the GOP presidential nomination in today's world. Sad.

    On the other hand, could a moderate Democrat like Bill Clinton get his party's nod in today's world? I have my doubts.

  2. Anonymous,

    Because my response to your comment was too lengthy for HTML to handle, I responded via a Phronesis posting, You can find it on the web page.

    Ron Fox

  3. I really enjoyed your summation of the Reagan presidency Ron.
    It does astound me that how much he remains revered by Republicans as almost a God-like figure. They truly don't understand his presidency but rather coddle the memory of the head shaking simplistic father figure.
    As to anonymous' comment that he doubts that Clinton would be elected were he to run today-- I am somewhat staggered. He still remains the most popular and pragmatic politician of our time and I believe he would walk an election. He is an astute dealer, a captivating speaker and extremely intelligent but without the arrogance that we see in so many politicians today.
    He truly understands the need to walk the middle road in politics yet ensuring that one's detractors clearly understand who is president.
    Paul Gottlieb MD,FRCS ,FACS


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