In this March 19, 1987 file photo, President Reagan gestures during a news conference at the White House in Washington.
Dennis Cook, File/AP Photo

When ‘hard-liners’ dominate the GOP

Updated
Given that the American right has opposed every diplomatic nuclear agreement in modern times, it hardly comes as a surprise that conservatives are apoplectic about the new international deal with Iran. As we talked about yesterday, even Ronald Reagan – a man with near-religious status in GOP circles – was accused of “appeasement” and compared to Chamberlain by conservatives in the mid-1980s.
 
The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. has more details on this in his new column.
When President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in November 1985, he whispered to the Soviet leader: “I bet the hard-liners in both our countries are bleeding when we shake hands.”
 
Reagan had a point. His inclination to negotiate with the Evil Empire left many of his conservative friends aghast. In an otherwise touchingly affectionate assessment of the 40th president’s tenure, my Post colleague George F. Will said that Reagan had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West  … by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”
 
Further right, the conservative activist Howard Phillips accused Reagan of being “a very weak man with a very strong wife and a strong staff” who had become “a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda.”
If you’re under the impression that Reagan’s exalted, glorious status among Republicans has always been true, you’re mistaken. When the GOP president was actually in office, the right disagreed with him fairly regularly.
 
And in the case of nuclear diplomacy, vehemently. The comparisons to 2015 are admittedly imprecise, but Reagan’s negotiations were arguably more shocking – the Soviet Union was a nuclear superpower. We were in the midst of a Cold War against a powerful foe committed to the destruction of the United States, with the military resources needed to destroy the United States altogether.
 
Reagan ignored the “hard-liners” in both countries and struck a deal. The right howled, but they lost the debate, and history vindicates the negotiations.
 
But Dionne’s column got me thinking: 30 years later, where are the Republicans who aren’t “hard-liners”?
 
When Reagan sat down with leaders from the USSR, conservatives lashed out wildly, but the Republican president nevertheless maintained some support within his party and drew little fire from Democrats who broadly supported the diplomatic effort.
 
Three decades later, Democrats are terrified of supporting a popular nuclear agreement and the number of Republican elected officials who’ve endorsed international talks with Iran – not just the final agreement, but the talks themselves – is roughly zero.
 
Reagan mocked the contingent of “hard-liners” in his party who always oppose nuclear talks, but a generation later, isn’t it fair to say the GOP is made up entirely of “hard-liners”? What was once a faction of the party is now, for all intents and purposes, the party?
 
It’s entirely possible that there are some GOP officials who are secretly impressed with the international agreement reached this week, and hope to see it implemented.. But the fact that these officials feel the need to remain silent for fear of a partisan backlash says quite a bit about the state of Republican politics in 2015.
 
Dionne’s column added some additional context that’s worth keeping in mind:
It’s worth remembering that Reagan’s willingness to bargain with Gorbachev weakened the hard-liners in the Soviet Union, creating the opening for its collapse. And there are parallels between the two-step approaches that both Reagan and Obama took to a problematic foe. The Gipper was very tough at the outset of his presidency, and the Soviet Union realized it could not keep up with U.S. defense spending. Gorbachev came to the table. Obama got our allies to impose much tougher sanctions, and Iran came to the table.
 
There is no way of knowing if this deal will lead to a dramatic transformation inside Iran, and there are some legitimate doubts that it will. But then, Reagan’s conservative skeptics were also insistent that the Soviet Union could never change, and surely never fall. They were wrong and Reagan’s bet paid off. Obama is now making a comparable wager.
 

Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, Nuclear, Nuclear Policy and Ronald Reagan

When 'hard-liners' dominate the GOP

Updated