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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Reagan Without Tears — or Illusions

I disagree with the crux of the conclusion of Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column, “The New Party of Reagan,” in which he says,

…While Reagan nostalgia endures, a number of Republicans have begun to admit the obvious: The Gipper would no longer be welcome on the GOP team. Most recently, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (Calif.) called Reagan a “moderate former liberal . . . who would never be elected today in my opinion.” This spring, Mike Huckabee judged that “Ronald Reagan would have a very difficult, if not impossible time being nominated in this atmosphere,” pointing out that Reagan “raises taxes as governor, he made deals with Democrats, he compromised on things in order to move the ball down the field.”

While the point about Reagan’s willingness to compromise is historically accurate, my take is that Reagan was more the party hack than the man of principle Milbank’s conclusion suggests. If Reagan were alive and alert today, I would be very surprised if he didn’t issue statements supporting McConnell, Cantor and Boehner as they do their worst.
Perhaps Reagan would side more with McConnell than Cantor in the debt ceiling negotiations. But I doubt he would make a big deal about it. “No longer welcome on the GOP team” is a stretch. As Milbank shows, they trot out his speeches every chance they get.
What Milbank got right is Reagan’s track record of supporting economic policies today’s GOP no longer tolerates:

Tea Party Republicans call a vote to raise the debt ceiling a threat to their very existence; Reagan presided over 18 increases in the debt ceiling during his presidency.
Tea Party Republicans say they would sooner default on the national debt than raise taxes; Reagan agreed to raise taxes 11 times.
Tea Party Republicans, in “cut, cap and balance” legislation on the House floor Tuesday, voted to cut government spending permanently to 18 percent of gross domestic product; under Reagan, spending was as high as 23.5 percent and never below 21.3 percent of GDP.
That same legislation would take federal spending down to a level last seen in 1966, before Medicare was fully up and running; Reagan in 1988 signed a major expansion of Medicare.

All of which shows that Reagan once supported economic polices that are no longer acceptable to GOP leaders. But none of that proves he wouldn’t adjust to the GOP party line today. Were he alive today, it’s hard to imagine him steering the tea party and GOP leaders toward sweet reason and compromise, especially since he used his majorities in congress to steam-roll Dems every chance he could.
Some Democrats believe that referencing Reagan’s legacy to suggest he would be agreeing with Democratic economic policy today is a good idea. I think it distorts history and confuses Reagan’s real legacy, which is an all-out assault on America’s labor movement, de-regulation and carte blanche for corporate abuses. It’s a mistake to whitewash all that to score a few points about his willingness to compromise when his puppet masters told him it was OK.
Reagan didn’t get a free ride from the mainstream media during his presidency. But he got off easy much of the time. Let’s not compound the error by holding him up today as Mr. Moderate, when his presidency was overwhelmingly directed toward screwing working people to give the fattest of cats as much as possible.
Yes, it’s fun to use Reagan’s quotes and policies against today’s Republican leaders. But It would be wrong to forget Reagan’s central contribution to the GOP-driven gridlock we are now experiencing. His statement that “Government is the problem” is still the ideological mantra of the Republicans ideologues who are devoted to obstructing any reforms that benefit the middle class. That, regrettably, remains his most enduring legacy.

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