Ronald Reagan: RINO

The "Ronald Reagan" that many of today's conservatives wish today's Republicans were more like didn't actually exist.

As I’ve noted in this space many times, Ronald Reagan was my first political hero. I came of political age during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which kicked off a couple weeks before my 14th birthday, and the 1980 campaign between Reagan and incumbent President Jimmy Carter was the first one to which I paid rapt attention. Reagan’s re-election rout over Walter Mondale four years later was the first one in which I participated.

I’m constantly reminding people that the “Ronald Reagan” that many of today’s conservatives wish today’s Republicans were more like didn’t actually exist.   He constantly compromised with Democrats; how else to get things done when they controlled the House?   He signed into law a huge amnesty provision for illegal aliens.  He negotiated a massive cut in nuclear armaments with the Evil Empire.   And, as Andrew Sullivan reminds us, as governor he took an approach to prison overcrowding that would likely get him primaried today: Reducing the population by a third through early releases and declining to send people back to prison for minor parole violations.

Reagan actually bragged about releasing people from prison and shrinking the prison budget, which is hard to imagine nowadays. And this was just a different time politically. There wasn’t a lot of attention on crime policy. You didn’t have state ballot initiatives devoted to prison and crime issues. You didn’t have a public that thought it was equipped and capable of making criminal justice policy. You didn’t have a strong prison guards’ union that lobbied the Legislature and the governor. And at the time, the governor just had more control over the prison system overall.

He even increased conjugal visits!   He was primarily motivated by controlling costs, not do-gooderism.   But Arnold Schwarzenegger would be run out of Sacramento on a rail if he tried this.

So, was Ronald Reagan a Republican In Name Only?   Or have we moved the bar so far to the right that Reagan doesn’t qualify as a conservative anymore?

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, US Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. matt says:

    Ronald Reagan hasn’t qualified as a true conservative for at least the last 8 years (probably even longer). It never ceases to amaze me how deluded rank and file republicans are about Reagan. I think it’s a sad commentary on modern conservatism when despite having an array of conservative leaders they have to choose a fictional version of Reagan as being the ideal…

  2. John Personna says:

    I attribute it all to the failure of socialism, and the misunderstanding that free market (as opposed to regulated) capitalism won.

    The rhetoric created an identity right of past policy.

  3. Steve Plunk says:

    You’ve got this one wrong Dr. Joyner.

    Reagan was and is admired by conservatives more for his attitude and leadership than the practical matters of governance. He firmly believed in American as an exceptional nation and always saw government as a necessary evil. From those two beliefs you build a core of conservatism.

    While president Reagan compromised when he had to and held the line when he could. He fired illegally striking air traffic controllers but compromised on the amnesty. The difference with then and now is that conservatives have learned amnesty did not provide a solution to the problem, we learned.

    The bar really hasn’t been moved except by the left who have dragged the definition of moderate away from mainstream American beliefs on many issues. Looking back in time doesn’t always give us a better idea of what was going on. Reagan took a country suffering under the malaise and gave us hope more than conservative policy but that just the start of the movement.

    Conservatives debate policy with clear goals and arguments. The nasty image of frothy mouthed conservatives not budging on issues is false. We have compromised much over the last few generations and have established our credentials as pragmatists more than ideologues.

    It foolish to take the Reagan of 30 years ago and plop him down in today’s world and say “look, he’s not what you thought he was”. Of course he’s not and thinking conservatives know that. Times change and political parties change. Do you think the Democratic party of 30 years would have supported DADT repeal? No they wouldn’t have, they have changed just as conservatives have changed and Reagan would have changed to a degree.

    The most disappointing thing about our current Democratic leadership is that they have given up on America as an exceptional country. That’s something that makes Reagan and modern conservatives so much alike, we disagree with that.

  4. John Personna says:

    But Steve, I was a happy Reagan Republican, and am now an independent. I am typical of the “lapsed Republican” segment. I was all for the pendulum swinging right, until
    It passed reason.

    I dropped out when GWB started going off the rails. The new conservatives defended him until he was gone, and then only half-noticed the ruin of his era!

    That you blame the liberals makes sense on that context. Why understand at this late date?

  5. mantis says:

    Conservatives debate policy with clear goals and arguments. The nasty image of frothy mouthed conservatives not budging on issues is false. We have compromised much over the last few generations and have established our credentials as pragmatists more than ideologues.

    You’re funny. Tell another one.

    The most disappointing thing about our current Democratic leadership is that they have given up on America as an exceptional country. That’s something that makes Reagan and modern conservatives so much alike, we disagree with that.

    You’re full of it.

    And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

    and:

    America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

    Guess who said those things? The leader of the Democratic Party. Here’s another:

    Still, Obama stands by the universality of the American proposition: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness under a constitutional government of limited powers. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” he told me, but not one based on “our military prowess or our economic dominance.”

    Rather, he insisted, “our exceptionalism must be based on our Constitution, our principles, our values and our ideals. We are at our best when we are speaking in a voice that captures the aspirations of people across the globe.”

    America is exceptional, because of our Constitution, and I’ll bet you can’t find one example of “our current Democratic leadership” saying otherwise.

  6. steve says:

    Reagan made big tax cuts followed by some smaller tax raises. Spending was not cut. He should get credit for dropping inflation, though in retrospect, that was amazingly good politics. The deep recession at the start of his recession could be blamed on Carter. Then, interest rates were dropped prior to the 84 election giving him a booming economy when the election came. Nice timing if you can manage it.

    Steve

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    JP, What particular policies do you abject to? I know there are some personalities out there that rub people the wrong way but what planks in the party platform moved you away? It’s a sincere question.

    Mantis, I don’t think there’s much of debate regarding our presidents view that America is no more exceptional than any other country, he has said as much.

  8. mantis says:

    Mantis, I don’t think there’s much of debate regarding our presidents view that America is no more exceptional than any other country, he has said as much.

    Can you read the quotes I provided? They refute your contention beyond the shadow of a doubt.

  9. Wayne says:

    Re “He negotiated a massive cut in nuclear armaments with the Evil Empire”

    Once he had an upper hand in the deal and got a good deal in the process. He didn’t do it when he first took office and gave away the farm like many liberals wanted him to. He negotiated from strength.

    When he compromise with Democrats, more often than not he received as much or more than he gave. Most Democrats idea of compromise today is give them most everything they want. Yes Reagan sign the amnesty bill but part of that bill was a “promise” to secure the border. Democrats broke that promise. Fool us once shame on you. Fool us twice shame on us.

    Also don’t forget Reagan taking on an winning against the MSM, rebuilding a great military, standing up tall for the U.S. and many more conservative accomplishments.

  10. Wayne says:

    Also can anyone name a time when Reagan didn’t back and\or attack a Republican candidate after they won their primary?

    Did he ever run as a third party Candidate after losing a primary?

  11. steve says:

    From the post above on Reagan’s tax increases.

    “This last point is especially laughable. In 1982, Ronald Reagan proudly announced that he was getting $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increase. He later lamented that all he ever got were the taxes. “Congress never cut spending by even one penny, ” Reagan complained in 1993.”

    Which does not appear to square with….

    “When he compromise with Democrats, more often than not he received as much or more than he gave. ”

    Steve

  12. sam says:

    @Wayne

    “Also can anyone name a time when Reagan didn’t back and\or attack a Republican candidate after they won their primary?

    “Did he ever run as a third party Candidate after losing a primary?”

    Never. He was the author, if I’m not mistaken, of the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.

    Which is why I think he would find it very, very difficult in today’s GOP. Look at the pissing match in Alaska, the “Flight from Christine”, the contempt that Sarah Palin is held in by folks who are conservative by any reasonable definition, eg, Daniel Larison, David Frum. I think President Reagan would be appalled by the current state of the GOP.

    I must say, in the interests of disclosure, that I despised his politics when he was in office. I thought he was way to cozy with the evangelical movement (BTW, whatever happened to them?), for one thing, and too bellicose for another. And, I’m a bit ashamed to say, my distaste for his politics infected my view of him as a person. It wasn’t until after he died that I read some of his letters and diary entries. That didn’t change my dislike for his politics, but it did soften the dislike, and it did change my view of him as a person profoundly. He was a very thoughtful and intelligent person, and while, as I say, I didn’t agree with his policies, they were the result of a sharp and reflective mind. But I think it’s just for that, for his intelligence and reflectiveness, he would feel ill at ease in today’s GOP, where feeling seems to have replaced thought.

  13. Brett says:

    He was a transitional Republican, more or less. He had elements of the old Republican Party (strong anti-communism, pro-business, compromises for fiscal stability), as well as the new emerging one (anti-tax, using the religious conservatives for electoral purposes followed by ignoring them in office).

  14. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, how would Reagen compromise with not the democrats but the crazy a$$ Marxist liberal 20%er cult of the early two thousands?

  15. sam says:

    QED

  16. john personna says:

    JP, What particular policies do you abject to? I know there are some personalities out there that rub people the wrong way but what planks in the party platform moved you away? It’s a sincere question.

    Well, I have to cast my mind back, always a risky proposition. I remember that in the 2000 election I wasn’t real enthused about either candidate, but given that they were both campaigning toward the center (pretending to be moderates) I didn’t see a red flag on either. I thought they were both second-string, but that had something to do with looming recession.

    I’ll tell you one thing that will ignite liberals, I liked “compassionate conservatism” and believed it. It was up my alley, a belief in markets first, but a safety net and compassion for those with the hard luck to fail.

    Probably the first signs of trouble came when GWB move away from his moderate promise to a harder conservative “mandate.” It seemed bait and switch. Compassion (which in my book didn’t have to be a full blown welfare state) faded, and policy became capitalism a little more red in tooth and claw.

    At the same time we had that whole neo-con build-out on foreign policy. Prior to 2000, conservatism was a little more about fortress America, and avoidance of long-term foreign entanglements. Bush Sr’s “get in and get out” in Iraq being a case in point.

    So we had reductions in oversight, a new Team America World Police, and of course budgets gone mad.

    Oh, and the real triumph of fundamentalist Christian social policy, a turn off to someone of more moderate libertarian leanings.

    Not a lot to like 😉

  17. john personna says:

    Here’s a blast from the past … remember the words “peace dividend?”

    Well, we pissed that away on a neo-con ____ dream.

  18. john personna says:

    Here’s another blast from the past … remember the move to privatize social security?

    What could possibly go wrong!

  19. G.A.Phillips says:

    Here’s another blast from the past, listen to the whole thing.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt1fYSAChxs&feature=channel

    This is the guy that should have had four terms and they should have started in the 60’s!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. sam says:

    “This is the guy that should have had four terms ”

    Yeah, well, you can thank the Republican party for that.

  21. anjin-san says:

    > He firmly believed in American as an exceptional nation

    Funny, so do I. It’s never ceases to amaze me that the right consider themselves to be the only patriots in our country. Is it simple stupidity, or self-delusion? Signs point to both.

    My experience with Reagan goes back to when he was Governor of California. He was a pragmatist, a guy who liked people and liked getting things done. Today’s “conservatives” are not a pimple on his ass, and it is a joke to assert otherwise.

    > Times change and political parties change

    That’s true. The GOP has embraced outright nut jobs and is working to elect them to some of the highest offices in the land.

  22. G.A.Phillips says:

    ***Yeah, well, you can thank the Republican party for that.***

    lol, so the prgressave tyrent FDR had nothing to with four terms or causeing that sort of thing to be ended, lol ok Sam……

    I was being a wishfull thinker but not as wishfull as you, I think. lol……

  23. SJ Reidhead says:

    BLESS YOU!

    I’ve been saying the same thing for years. The right has gone so far right they no longer even recognize Reagan.

    SJR
    The Pink Flamingo

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    “JP, What particular policies do you abject to? I know there are some personalities out there that rub people the wrong way but what planks in the party platform moved you away? It’s a sincere question.”

    This is a good question that Republicans have given up asking although they have lost large swathes of the best educated and upper middle class. 2008 was the first election since they’ve been counting this stuff that a majority of the college educated and upper middle class (defined as those earning over 150k) voted Democrat. It’s why they’ve lost the NE, most of the mid Atlantic, the west coast and urban areas generally outside of the south. Personally I’m the archetypal NE upper middle class guy who almost by default always pulled the lever for Republicans unless they were obviously duds. So what happened? In my case Newt Gingrich, the govt shutdown and the impeachment of Clinton happened. And this caused one to ask what are these people up to? The sheer insanity of the Bush/DeLay years turned a question into a certainty. In a sentences what’s happened of course is they let the Morlocks out the basement and they’ve taken over. In the long run this is going to be extremely damaging because of generational and ethnic changes. Which doesn’t mean Republicans are never going to win elections but that the tide of rationalism, secularism, professionalism, tolerance and the increasing complexity govt are running against them. And before anyone says but this is conservative country, of course it’s conservative country, all countries are conservative in that they don’t like change. But this cuts both ways. Most Americans aren’t going to welcome changes to Social Security or Medicare which, along with the fact you have a whole voting class that is heavily dependant on them, is why any attempts by Republicans to change them in any substantive way are doomed. Republicans may well have created their own reality but it doesn’t really correspond to reality.

  25. Tano says:

    “… don’t think there’s much of debate regarding our presidents view that America is no more exceptional than any other country, he has said as much.”

    But this is completely false.
    He said he believes in American exceptionalism.
    He went on to say that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.
    How on earth can you either deny the truth of that, or twist that into what you came up with?

  26. george says:

    “But this is completely false.
    He said he believes in American exceptionalism.
    He went on to say that Brits believe in British exceptionalism and Greeks in Greek exceptionalism.
    How on earth can you either deny the truth of that, or twist that into what you came up with?”

    And actually that seems to be a pretty true statement. Just about every western country thinks its better than the rest. The Canadians, British, French, Germans, and Italians certainly do, if you’ve ever spent time in those countries. From what I’ve read, the Scandinavians do as well. And of course so do Americans.

    It doesn’t seem to be a statement that can have any controversy about it, its so demonstrate-ably true.

  27. Brummagem Joe says:

    george says:
    Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 09:48
    “And actually that seems to be a pretty true statement.”

    Of course it’s true, all societies believe in their own exceptionalism in one way or another. There is still a strong strand in the British psyche that believes they are the chosen people and natural lords of the earth. If you’re Swiss you probably believe the 600 years of peace and stability plus cuckoo clocks is the source of your exeptionalism. However, one should beware of believing your own propaganda because “Pride goeth before a fall.”

  28. matt says:

    No one cares but my conversion followed the same lines as Joe except I came up out of a poor as dirt family during the Reagan years (mmm gov’t cheese)..

  29. Wayne says:

    Re “that he was getting $3 of spending cuts for every $1 of tax increase”

    Sounds like a good deal to me. Unfortunately like the deal to secure the border, the Democrats renege on their part of the deal. Reagan mistake was in thinking the Democrats were honorable.

    R the RINO
    Just because you are Joyner claim something “is” doesn’t make it so. Neither of you have put up a convincing argument. Pointing to a fact that a President has to compromise at times doesn’t show Presidents RINOs or DINOs. Otherwise you could claim that for any President.

    I had my issues with Reagan as well. However to claim he was not a conservative and a Republican is laughable. Such desperate claims show how desperate some have become.

  30. anjin-san says:

    > I had my issues with Reagan as well. However to claim he was not a conservative

    Reagan was clearly a conservative. Its the folks who call themselves conservatives today who, for the most part, are not.

  31. Wayne says:

    Re “Reagan was clearly a conservative. Its the folks who call themselves conservatives today who, for the most part, are not.”

    Watch out for hell freezing over. Anjin and I agree on something.

    Just to be clear though if Reagan is not “as” conservative as some that doesn’t mean he was not a conservative or if some are not as conservative as Reagan doesn’t mean they are not. However there is a point where if you go far enough left you are no longer a conservative. Being a Republican doesn’t change that. Making phony arguments that Reagan wasn’t that conservative and a RINO(not really because he is like me and I am being sneaky) in attempt to be able to claim that you (not you Anjin) are not a RINO is lame. James should be ashamed for calling Reagan a RINO in an attempt to legitimize his views.

  32. anjin-san says:

    > Watch out for hell freezing over. Anjin and I agree on something.

    Chilly indeed 🙂

  33. Wayne says:

    One little hope is I suspect we are not talking about the exact same people.