Reagan the Pragmatist (and RINO)

Via the LATThe real Ronald Reagan may not meet today’s GOP standards

As president, the conservative icon approved several tax increases to deal with a soaring budget deficit, repeatedly boosted the nation’s debt limit, signed into law a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and, despite his anti-Washington rhetoric, oversaw an increase in the size and spending of the federal government. Before that, as California governor, he enacted what at the time was the largest state tax increase in American history. He also signed into law one of the nation’s most permissive abortion bills; any Republican who tried that today would be cast out of the party.

The fact that Reagan often took the actions grudgingly speaks to what, by modern Republican standards, may be one of the greatest heresies of all: At bottom, Reagan was a pragmatist, willing, when necessary, to cut a deal and compromise.

"He had a strong set of core values and operated off of those," said Stuart Spencer, a GOP strategist who stood by Reagan’s side for virtually his entire political career, starting with his first run for governor. "But when push came to shove, he did various things he didn’t like doing, because he knew it was in the best interests of the state or country at the time."

Without getting into a question of evaluating Reagan’s policy choices, I think that the above-emphasized sections underscore a major problem with the contemporary GOP:  there is an unwillingness to be pragmatic about governing.

Governance, especially of the democratic variety, requires compromise and a fundamental acknowledgment that  one is unlikely to get exactly what one wants.  This reality appears to be anathema to a large swath of the GOP these days.

"People that pragmatic now are what they call RINOs," said Spencer, using the epithet, "Republican in Name Only," that is flung by keepers of the faith at those deemed less than pure.


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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Murray says:

    RINO is actually becoming a badge of honor these days given that all it takes to be labeled as such is to say something sensible.

  2. superdestroyer says:

    The problem with the Reagan Administration and the policy types that now populate the Republican party is that it taught then to only think about the short term and never think about the long term.

    Amnesty has created a California where the Republicans are irrelevant and will eventually tip the scales for the Democrats in Arizona, Nevada, and even Texas. Open borders and unlimited immigraiton has created a failed public school system in states like California.

    Increasing taxes just gives more power to Democrats since it creates the ability for big spending Democrats to reward their friends and punish their enemies.

    Reagan also did little to limit the size of the government and now the U.S. has a government so large and so invasive that it chokes the economic and social life out of the U.S.

    The Tea Party types are mad, in part, becuase the Republicans have been too pragmatic while giving the Democrats virtually everything they want while getting little in return. See the Bush II administraiton so see how stupid Republicans can be when the Republicans are going out of their way to pander to core Democratic Party groups while ignoring thei party base.

  3. Pug says:


    …big spending Democrats…

    And we all know there is no such thing as a big spending Republican, except maybe for Reagan, who spent money on defense like there was no tomorrow, or George W. Bush, or…well, all of them.

  4. superdestroyer says:


    One of the main reasons that the Tea Party exists is that Republicans refused to be fiscal conservatives and spent like drunken sailers. Of course, Those big spending Republicans refused to understand that big government benefits the Democrats who can use the largess of the government to reward their friends and punish their enemies.

    Reagan and both Bushes refused to acknowledge that growing government, open borders, and deficit spending all had long term negative consequences.

    The real long term legacy of Reagan and Bush is that the U.S. will no longer have a conservative political party and that politics in the future will like politics in California today: big spending, one dominate party and the collapse of the middle class.

  5. Boyd says:

    Let me preface the rest of my comment by saying that I believe the “NO COMPROMISE – EVER!!” approach is ill-advised, and will ultimately be unsuccessful.

    That being said, though, I’ve seen several of these retrospectives of how President Reagan governed, and they always seem to only discuss one side of the “Reagan coin,” i.e. his pragmatic side. He was also principled, and wouldn’t back down on certain points that he believed should be non-negotiable. That is what I regard as the “adult approach” to governance: compromise in the normal give-and-take of negotiation, but on the most important stuff, stiffen your spine and stand your ground if it’s something that’s truly a matter of principle.

    The problem so many hardliners (of whatever stripe, be it conservative, liberal, libertarian or anything else) have with this is viewing every last thing as a matter of principle. Then again, defining where that dividing line falls is very much a matter of opinion that varies widely among people.

  6. @Boyd: I have no problem with what you are saying. I just find that, at the moment, the GOP in particular appears to not understand the “adult approach” of which you speak (the “hands up” moment at the debate a few weeks back, wherein the candidates all rejected the notion of a 10:1 cutting to tax increase ratio speaks to this point).

  7. Boyd says:

    @Steven: Well, these are politicians, after all, and at this point in the Republican campaign cycle, they probably thought it was the smart thing to say, on net gaining them more support than conceding that there may be some role for increased taxes.

    As we see time and time again, campaigning is very different from governing. How well someone campaigns often seems to have little correlation to how they govern after they win.

  8. @Boyd: The problem with that assessment, I would submit, is that the House GOP looks to be governing that way as well (such as in the debt ceiling debate).

  9. Boyd says:

    @Steven: I see your point, but I’m not really thinking about the House at this point in the discussion. Also, the subject of your post dealt specifically with governing (as opposed to legislating).

    And now that I stop to think about it, there’s also the factor that the eternal campaign is intensified even more for politicians who serve two-year terms.

  10. @Boyd:

    Also, the subject of your post dealt specifically with governing (as opposed to legislating).

    I would argue that legislating is the very foundation of governing (in many ways it is actually more important than executive action). I think, however, we tend not to understand this in US (and, indeed, this is part of the problem with our politics).

  11. Boyd says:

    @Steven: I think we’re officially on a tangent from your original post now.

  12. Racehorse says:

    @Boyd: Both Reagan and Nixon were pragmatist. Reagan didn’t really acknowledge it, Nixon did. Both are now considered very effective and innovative presidents who knew how to get things done.