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Would Ronald Reagan have survived a tea party challenge?

On the 10th anniversary of Reagan's death, the GOP remains as enamored as ever of the 40th president. But would the Gipper have survived a tea party challenge?
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaks at a rally on Feb. 8, 1982.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan speaks at a rally on Feb. 8, 1982.

The competition among Republican presidential hopefuls to claim the mantle of former President Ronald Reagan, who died ten years ago today, remains so fierce that two months ago the Web site Wonkette counted no fewer than 32 references to the Gipper in a single 699-word op-ed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., commissioned an oil painting of Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, which hangs in his Senate office nearby a red leather replica of a paperweight Reagan kept on his Oval Office desk with the words "IT CAN BE DONE."

Then there’s Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who in a 2011 speech suggested that none but those “born and raised in Ronald Reagan’s America” were fit to govern. “We, perhaps better than any other people who have ever lived in this nation, should understand how special and unique America truly is.”

"Government spending grew by one quarter on Reagan's watch. The civilian executive branch workforce, too, grew close to its historic peak."'

The feverish devotion that conservatives heap on our 40th U.S. president calls to mind the 1975 film "The Story of Adèle H," about a young Frenchwoman’s romantic obsession with a lieutenant in the British army. In a famous late scene in the film, Adèle’s amour fou has progressed to the point that when she encounters her beloved in a dusty street, she walks right past him, no longer able to recognize his non-idealized self.

It’s easy to do an Adèle H with Reagan, because the Great Communicator was always much more conservative in word than in deed. “In this present crisis,” Reagan intoned in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Yet government spending grew by one quarter on his watch. The civilian executive branch workforce, too, grew close to its historic peak. As I noted on the occasion of Reagan’s death, it’s more fitting than most admirers know that the largest free-standing structure in Washington, D.C. is a government office building bearing Reagan’s name.

The central tenet of conservatism today is that taxes are too high, and it’s true that Reagan brought the top marginal income tax rate down from 70% all the way to 28% -- its lowest point since Herbert Hoover’s presidency. But Reagan also raised taxes at least five times during his presidency. Among these was an increase in the tax that conservatives usually consider the most hateful of all: the capital gains tax. In 1986 the tax-reform bill that Reagan signed raised the top capital gains rate from 20% to 28% so that it would match the top income-tax rate. Liberals routinely praise Reagan for doing this, and decry Clinton for later dropping the top capital gains rate back down to 20%. (Clinton has since explained the cut as the price congressional Republicans imposed for increasing education spending and creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Reagan similarly accepted a higher capital gains rate in exchange for the lower tax rate on top incomes and elimination of various tax loopholes.)

Reagan wasn’t really the hawk he pretended to be, either. If Teddy Roosevelt advised walking softly and carrying a big stick, Reagan’s policy was the opposite: bellicose rhetoric and extravagant military spending matched with a powerful reluctance to commit U.S. forces. The only actual war Reagan presided over was the conquest of Grenada, a tiny island in the Caribbean that briefly embraced Marxism. He funded the anti-communist contras in Nicaragua, but when Congress cut them off he raised the money by trading arms for hostages in Iran. (Hilariously, Oliver North, who carried out the arms-for-hostages swap, is now condemning President Obama's own deal for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.) At the 1986 Reykjavik nuclear-arms summit, Reagan spooked his right flank by proposing the complete elimination of nuclear weapons -- a proposal that was turned down by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev because Reagan wouldn’t give up his space-based Strategic Defense Initiative).

Reagan was also less than rock-solid on social issues. He was sufficiently anti-abortion in 1984 to write a book titled "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation," but as governor of California 17 years earlier he signed into law a liberalization bill that increased the number of abortions from about 500 annually to more than 100,000, far exceeding the number in any other state prior to Roe v. Wade. Thus the only time Reagan was in a position to alter abortion law in any fundamental way, he liberalized it. Reagan was also the first and still the only U.S. president ever to get a divorce. (FDR considered divorcing Eleanor in 1918 but was dissuaded from doing so partly on the grounds that it would destroy his political career.) Hendrik Hertzberg, then of The New Republic, dubbed Reagan a “closet tolerant” who took a fairly cosmopolitan view of homosexuality (he spent most of his life in show business, after all) even as he downplayed, for the sake of political expediency, the AIDS crisis.

It would be a stretch to call Ronald Reagan a liberal. But he would certainly be too liberal to entertain much hope today of beating back a tea party primary challenge.