Reagan the RINO Redux

The main problem is governing should be different than simplistic rhetoric.

The main issue with Reagan and the contemporary GOP is this:  if one takes the prevailing rhetoric, especially from the commetariat, but also from think tanks and politicians, and uses it to measure Reagan on a number of actual policies, Reagan falls well short of the mark.

The two most obvious would be taxes and immigration.

Now, could Reagan the politician, win nomination?  Certainly.  But the reality of the Reagan presidency, at least in some specific areas, is simply outside the realm of acceptable mainstream Republican rhetoric at the moment.

A simple example:  in a blind evaluation (i.e., sans name or other identification) of what Reagan signed into law on tax increases alone would make him an utterly unacceptable candidate to both the Club for Growth as well as the Tea Party.

Further, there are key components of the GOP coalition that would have nothing to do with a politician not named Reagan who signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.  Heck, when said persons scream about “amnesty!” what do you think they are talking about?  Legislatively speaking, they are referring to the IRCA (whether they realize it or not).

Further, if Obama is personally responsible for every federal dollar spent since January of 2009, what would the deficit hawks have to say about the president who oversaw the deficit explosions of the 1980s?*

Really, the real problem with the “is Reagan a RINO?” question is that it underscores the extremeness of the rhetorical positions of the GOP at the moment.  Reagan the politician could have run for office within the party, but the point is that Reagan’s actual record if divorced from his St. Ronnie persona was offered up to the RNC convention this summer, it would hardly be received with open arms.  Rather, it would be burned on stage on live TV.

Indeed, a grand irony on the issues of both taxes and immigration from the simplistic POV that people like Grover Norquist demand these days:  Obama has a far better tax record than Reagan, as Obama has not raised income taxes, while Reagan did.  Likewise, using the simplistic demands of the anti-immigration coalition at the moment, in a blind test, ought to pick Obama over Reagan, as Obama has actually been one of the toughest (if not the toughest) presidents in terms of deportations while Reagan signed the amnesty bill into law.

And yes, on the one hand, the actual evaluation of presidents is more complex than that (but that is rather the point), but on the other hand, an honest and full evaluation requires actually examining and evaluating the actual policies of a given president.

Further, as was noted in some quotes in Doug Mataconis’ post yesterday, the fact that Romney is going to be the nominee shows that the Republican Party is not truly ultra right wing.  Perhaps this is the case, but a few things are true.  One, there is a substantial and troubling gap between the rhetorical demands being made on politicians and the reality of governing, and two, there is little doubt that Romney has had to cater to this rhetoric.  However, the truly concerning reality is that it seems that the rhetoric is becoming reality, as we saw with the debt ceiling game of chicken and the fact that on the one hand the rhetoric says that the deficit is going to kill us, but on the other we cannot even discuss revenue nor the defense budget.  The rhetoric does appear to be congealing into reality (and part of the point of the Reagan discussion is the he seemed to be willing to acquiesce to reality, whether it was on taxes or on negotiating with the Soviets).

What all of this underscores is that too many get caught up in the rhetoric wars and tribal politics and we ignore the actual policy and governance stuff.

*Of course, the main problem with simplification of deficit blame is that focusing it on a president ignores a) the role of the Congress (which is far more important), b) the state of the economy, c) the presence of crises, and d) programs that are automatic (such as food stamps).  Of course, in the above I am not talking about nuanced understandings of fiscal policy.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
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

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I said this is an earlier topic:

    Reagan would be successful in today’s GOP because he was a very talented politician, period. A politician is more than the sum of his or her ideological positions.

    Ronald Reagan would have been a different politician in these times because the the times demand it, and, he would have been successful too.

    The GOP is not fundamentally different today from what it was 30 years ago, except that it took a near Depression in 2008 to convince them that their deficit-spending was done by RINOs and not real Republicans.

  2. Further, as was noted in some quotes in Doug Mataconis’ post yesterday, the fact that Romney is going to be the nominee shows that the Republican Party is not truly ultra right wing.

    “not truly ultra” 😉

    We went through this with the McCain cycle. He was more moderate than his party, and as a result they required him to abandon his previous positions and record, to “come to Jesus” (complete with requisite visits to evangelical leaders).

    For that reason it’s a mistake to think that Romney’s amnesia on Romney Care is just about Romney. It is part of the “not truly moderate” dynamic.

    The GOP is caught. They won’t quite nominate an “ultra” candidate like Santorum, but they really can’t let Mitt be Mitt either.

  3. Shorter: It is only half the story to say that the GOP nominates moderates. It leaves out that it force them to sign on to further right commitments in the process.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    “the real problem with the “is Reagan a RINO?” question is that it underscores the extremeness of the rhetorical positions of the GOP at the moment.”

    And this is a problem because…?

  5. anjin-san says:

    but they really can’t let Mitt be Mitt either

    Mitt’s not a raging right wing ideologue, but he plays one on TV…

  6. mattb says:

    @john personna: This speaks exactly the sort of crisis that a divided party has. In this case there seems to be a large divide growing between the moderates and the extremists. The fact that Romney, like McCain before him, won the nomination speaks to the fact that the moderates remain the center which the extremists must orbit.

    That said, McCain also proved that you can’t win without carrying the extremists.

    What remains to be seen is whether or not, if Romney loses, the relationship shifts and the extremists overtake the center with the moderates orbiting them.

  7. J-Dub says:

    Mittens has already channeled his inner-Reagan by declaring Russia to be our number one foreign threat.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @al-Ameda: I lose, but not quite…

    The GOP is not fundamentally different today from what it was 30 years ago, except that it took a near Depression in 2008 to convince them that their deficit-spending was done by RINOs and not real Republicans.

    It’s not the depression, it’s the Democrat in the White House, pretty much pinned in place by the policies of the previous administration (two wars, the Bush tax cuts), which convince thenRepublicans that Obama’s deficit spending is bad. Their own deficit spending is just fine with them.

  9. legion says:

    @al-Ameda:

    The GOP is not fundamentally different today from what it was 30 years ago,

    Maybe not, but it _is_ fundamentally different than it was _35_ years ago… The Reagan era is when the Republican Party flatly stopped being the part of fiscal conservatism and became the party of profit at any cost. It’s when Republicans officially stopped caring about paying bills – at least, until it was a Democrat who had to write the checks…

  10. Scott says:

    @mattb: This moderate has pretty much left the party.

  11. Tillman says:

    However, the truly concerning reality is that it seems that the rhetoric is becoming reality, as we saw with the debt ceiling game of chicken and the fact that on the one hand the rhetoric says that the deficit is going to kill us, but on the other we cannot even discuss revenue nor the defense budget.

    Nietzsche caught on to this phenomenon around a hundred years ago in The Gay Science. Obviously, no one really knows or cares because it’s in a book called The Gay Science and isn’t about homosexuality.

  12. Rob in CT says:

    @legion:

    That’s unfair to Poppa Bush, I think. But look where that got him.

  13. @mattb:

    If it were truly as you describe, and “extremists” were just that, outliers on the curve, wouldn’t McCain or Romney be able to win the nomination without them, and only then court them for the general?

    See, I notice that they don’t win within the part as themselves, and therefore the “extreme” is setting terms for the moderates.

  14. @john personna:

    Shorter: It is only half the story to say that the GOP nominates moderates. It leaves out that it force them to sign on to further right commitments in the process.

    I think that this is that case. Althought by the same token, if the selectorate were as radical as the rhetoric of the base then they would be nominating more right wing candidates than has been the case. That is: if the party as a whole was an ultra as the rhetoric then it would nominate ultras, not candidate who have to pretend.

  15. @Moosebreath:

    And this is a problem because…?

    Poor choice of words. I should have said “issue” or “the crux of the matter” or somesuch.

  16. @al-Ameda:

    Ronald Reagan would have been a different politician in these times because the the times demand it, and, he would have been successful too.

    Yes, but that is sort of the point. It is also why I make a distinction between Reagan the candidate and Reagan’s policy resume.

  17. legion says:

    @Rob in CT: Exactly. He tried to do something different, and it got him fired. Future GOP candidates learned from that.

  18. anjin-san says:

    I think we can safely conclude that Reagan is, indeed, a Rinosaur. Love him or hate him, I think we all agree that he was a serious guy with remarkable political skills. Just a memory in today’s GOP, where various small reptiles hold sway…

  19. Wayne says:

    Re “too many get caught up in the rhetoric wars”

    Including those who try to revise history and imply Reagan was and would be different from what many of us remember him to be.

    I already reputed many times the examples many try to use to make Reagan look more liberal or moderate than he was. He had to compromise with Speaker O’Neal but he fought hard for and made a great progress in promoting conservative principles including lowering taxes much more than he ever raised them.

    I suspect if he came back today and became President, he would learn from the broken promises to the Dems made with him. He would adjust accordingly. He would remain the conservative he always was and not transform into a so-called moderate that many try to imply he was.

  20. Drew says:

    This essay is pure crap. Reagan resides in what would now be described as a Republican somewhere in the spectrum from the conservative to libertarian wing. (where i reside, BTW) He didn’t believe in getting into people’s personal lives, and although that gets all the press, neither do most Republicans. Fascinating, but libs are always telling us all the time how to behave. Look in the mirror, assholes.

    Second, he believed in smaller government . What is conveniently left out of this essay is t he supposed “deal” between T ip Oneill and Reagan for taxes for spending cuts. The cuts never came, and Reagan vowed to never be sucker punched again.

    Why must the left be so dishonest? Reagan would win 49 states t oda6 if he were running.

  21. mattb says:

    @Drew:

    He didn’t believe in getting into people’s personal lives, and although that gets all the press, neither do most Republicans. Fascinating, but libs are always telling us all the time how to behave.

    Drew:

    Two qustions… first how do you square your comment with the many examples of Republican based State Legislatures introducing various laws to limit same sex marriage, contraception access, and regulate abortion?

    More so, could you provide hard examples of legislation introduced and supported by “libs” — either on the state or federal level — which is about “telling us all the time how to behave?”

    Second, he believed in smaller government

    Ok… and how do you square that against his record? Ie:

    4. Reagan grew the size of the federal government tremendously. Reagan promised “to move boldly, decisively, and quickly to control the runaway growth of federal spending,” but federal spending “ballooned” under Reagan. He bailed out Social Security in 1983 after attempting to privatize it, and set up a progressive taxation system to keep it funded into the future. He promised to cut government agencies like the Department of Energy and Education but ended up adding one of the largest — the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which today has a budget of nearly $90 billion and close to 300,000 employees. He also hiked defense spending by over $100 billion a year to a level not seen since the height of the Vietnam war.
    http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/02/05/142288/reagan-centennial/

    I realize you’ll take issue with the source of the summary, but I choose it because of how succinctly it problematizes your attention to his rhetoric over his actions. There are plenty of neutral (and even conservative) sources that will back up the general numbers quoted there.

    Looking forward to your answer…

  22. mattb says:

    BTW: Does anyone have a link to a good summation of the Reagan/O’Neill budget battles and something that backs up the often raised claim that O’Neill stabbed Reagan in the back on the budget deal?

    And no, a link to transcripts from Rush or another Pundit are not what I mean when I say “good summation.”

  23. mattb says:

    @john personna & @Steven L. Taylor:

    Good points both of you. I would suggest that McCain and Romney could have won the nomination without much or any pandering to the extremist side of the base. As it stands, despite the media’s presentation of the 2008 or 2012 primary, it neither race was particularly close (and to the degree that 2008 was close, the issue was a battle between two moderates).

    It’s that neither can win the general without the extreme base (as McCain demonstrated in 2008).

    To my earlier analogy of a center and a satellite, a party enters into a crisis when the satellite becomes so large that it challenges the center. I don’t think the Republican party is there yet, but it’s closer now than in any point I can remember in my own history. And I think there’s a strong chance that an Obama win might be the tipping point for that shift.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Second, he believed in smaller government

    That is probably true. But that’s not what we got at the end of the day when he was President.

  25. steve says:

    Drew- Look at the numbers, not the myth.

    Steve

  26. sam says:

    @Tillman:

    Obviously, no one really knows or cares because it’s in a book called The Gay Science and isn’t about homosexuality.

    They could read The Joyful Wisdom…Seriously, though, Friedrich is, or ought to be, the goto guy for insights into today’s Republican Party. Certainly his analysis of the inversion of Christian “values” is spot on as regards modern Christianism (the “philosophy” of the GOP base).

    As for Reagan, his half-a-loaf MO would put him way outside the Pale, methinks.

  27. WR says:

    @Wayne: Shorter Wayne: Saint Ronnie can never fail. Saint Ronnie can only be failed.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    Hmm…we are told that Reagan was a brilliant politician, but, at the same time, the reason that deficits soared and government grew under his presidency was because he was suckered by Tip O’Neill? I guess Reagan wasn’t that brilliant…

    He didn’t believe in getting into people’s personal lives, and although that gets all the press, neither do most Republicans.

    Yeah, unless those personal lives involve abortion, drug use, homosexuality, etc. etc….

  29. mattb says:

    24+ hours and I’m still looking for any account of the Tip O’Neill “backstabbing.”

    BTW, @Wayne and @Drew, I think many of us would take you “conservatives” more seriously if you actually… you know… participated in the conversations you started rather than spewing and running. If you have any question why the OTB comment threads “turned liberal” its because it appears that only the “liberals” want to have an actual conversation.

  30. Eric Florack says:

    “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!”
    –Patrick Henry

    “Government big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have. The course of history shows us that as a government grows, liberty decreases.”
    ― Thomas Jefferson

    Right. Just rhetorical nonsense.

    Further, if Obama is personally responsible for every federal dollar spent since January of 2009, what would the deficit hawks have to say about the president who oversaw the deficit explosions of the 1980s?*

    That comparison only works if the republicans had been running the Congress since FDR. Or, if indeed, the senate wasn’t being run by democrats during Reagan’s second term. As you yourself have described, the real power of the purse belongs with the Congress. Which in Obama is case, was run exclusively by democrats for the first two years, wherein the majority of the deficit of Obama was added.