The GOP’s rejection of the Reagan legacy

The Reagans and the Romneys in 1967.
The Reagans and the Romneys in 1967.
Associated Press

President Obama covered quite a bit of ground in his speech at the Associated Press luncheon the other day, but one of his arguments stirred some interesting discussion: “Ronald Reagan … could not get through a Republican primary today.”

The president’s likely GOP rival made the opposite case yesterday.

Mitt Romney is disputing President Obama’s assertion that Ronald Reagan couldn’t win a primary in today’s Republican Party, adding that he could do it in part by going after Obama economic policies.

“I actually think Ronald Reagan would win handily in a primary and frankly in all the primaries,” Romney told a group of newspaper editors [Wednesday].

It hasn’t generated a lot of attention, but Obama’s not the only one arguing that contemporary Republicans would reject the man the RNC labeled “Ronaldus Magnus.” About a year ago, a House Republican went so far as to dismiss Reagan as a “moderate, former liberal” who “would never be elected today.” Mike Huckabee said around the same time, “Ronald Reagan would have a very difficult, if not impossible, time being nominated in this atmosphere of the Republican Party.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had a nearly identical take in 2010, arguing Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”

So, who’s right? Romney or Obama, Huckabee, and Graham? It’s obviously speculative, but I don’t think this is a close call.

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 deficit and added trillions to the debt, bailed out domestic industries, and called for a world without nuclear weapons. Reagan also met with our most hated enemy without preconditions, criticized Israel, and illegally funneled arms to Iran.

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 medicine).

Reagan “could not get through a Republican primary today”? Reagan could not get through a Republican primary without being laughed off the stage today.

Why does this matter? For one thing, it’s at least interesting to appreciate the fact that Republicans have a religious-like reverence for Reagan, they have no use for his approach to governance.

For another, it should tell the American mainstream something important when the GOP moves so far to the ideological extreme that it’s no longer the Party of Reagan.