When President Obama unveiled his proposals on preventing gun violence on Wednesday, he seemed eager to tout one of his predecessors. Ronald Reagan, Obama reminded his audience, was a “staunch defender” of the 2nd Amendment, but he nevertheless wrote to Congress in 1994, urging lawmakers to “listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of [military-style assault] weapons.”
It led the Denver Post’s Ryan Teague Beckwith to take note of some pretty high-profile fights in which the Democratic president has relied on the rhetoric and positions of a Republican president the RNC once seriously labeled “Ronaldus Magnus.”
The list isn’t comprehensive, but Beckwith’s piece featured Obama aligning himself with Reagan on gun policy, taxes, the debt ceiling, and infrastructure investments, among other things. Obama also routinely used Reagan’s name in his campaign stump speech.
The piece didn’t mention it, but I’m also reminded of the time in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Obama reflected on recent history: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” The point, of course, was that Obama intended to do the same thing, though he preferred a different direction.
Similarly, during the height of the Republicans’ debt-ceiling crisis in 2011, Obama, in a private meeting with congressional leaders, expressed frustration about the talks themselves. “Would Ronald Reagan be sitting here?” he asked rhetorically.
The point, of course, is not to suggest that Obama is a secret Republican, though I suspect the president respects his conservative predecessor. Rather, I think Obama uses Reagan’s name to reinforce a larger point about just how far today’s Republican Party has strayed from its mainstream past. President Obama, in other words, is laying claim to a Reagan legacy the GOP no longer wants.
As we talked about over the summer, Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times, and he supported the precursor to the Buffett Rule. In his first term, Reagan raised taxes when unemployment was nearing 11% – imagine trying this today – and proceeded to raise taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office. It’s a fact the right finds terribly inconvenient, but “no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people” as Reagan.
Reagan gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants, expanded the size of the federal government, tripled the debt, backed bailouts of domestic industries, and called for a world without nuclear weapons. Reagan also routinely compromised with Democrats, met with our most hated enemy without preconditions, and was willing to criticize Israel.
And then there’s his gubernatorial record: in California, Reagan increased spending, raised taxes, helped create the nation’s first state-based emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, and expanded the nation’s largest state-based Medicaid program (socialized health insurance).
For Obama, it’s likely the irony of GOP Reagan-worship is amusing – the party has a religious-like reverence for the former president, but the GOP has no use for his approach to governance.
And if Obama can remind the public of Republican extremism by noting how much he and Reagan – unlike the congressional GOP and Reagan – have in common, it’s hardly a surprise to hear the former president’s name pop up so often in Obama’s speeches.