How the Right Gets Reagan Wrong

Published June 26, 2017


For nearly 30 years, the Republican Party has increasingly resembled a religion, with Ronald Reagan is its deity. Party leaders endlessly quote him, and every GOP presidential nominee until Donald Trump ran on a platform they thought was barely changed from Reagan’s 1980 campaign. No wonder conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh calls our 40th president “Ronaldus Magnus”: Ronald the Great.

This religion’s creed—let’s call it Reaganism—is simple. Government and taxes are bad, private entrepreneurship and supply-side economics is good. Social conservatism and unofficial endorsement of Christianity is essential to national well-being. Around the world, America should speak loudly, carry the biggest stick and never be afraid of using it. Proclaim and practice these truths and political success will be yours.

This canon has been repeated for so long that it seems self-evidently true to Republicans and movement conservatives. But it’s simply not the sum of what Reagan believed.

I discovered this while researching my new book on Reagan’s life and thought. I learned that election returns show Americans don’t want what Reaganism’s high priests are preaching. More crucially, I learned that everything I thought I knew about Reagan was wrong—that Reaganism misrepresents Reagan’s own views.

Reagan’s conservatism actually fit squarely within Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal consensus, not the anti-New Deal conservatism that forms Reaganism’s heart.

Heresy! some readers will cry. How can a man who backed Barry Goldwater, who said that “libertarianism is the heart of conservatism,” and who told America that “government is not the solution to the problem, it is the problem” be a New Deal conservative? The answer is that while all those statements are true, they exist in the context of a much more pro-government world view than Reaganism admits.

The young Reagan was an ardent devotee of FDR and the Democratic Party. His friends from that era say he memorized FDR’s “fireside chats” and incessantly prattled on about New Deal liberalism. Many assume that his political outlook changed so much as he moved to the right that he rejected FDR and the New Deal.But Reagan always said “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me.” Taking that line seriously is the first step to getting Reagan right.

Reagan’s early conservative talks before he rose to national fame during Goldwater’s bid for the presidency in October 1964 argued that certain government social programs weren’t needed to meet “humanitarian aims.” He would criticize bureaucrats who bossed people around or programs that gave aid to people who didn’t need it. He did not, however, join other conservatives and say New Deal programs were unconstitutional or an improper thing for government to do. Nor, if the programs genuinely met a legitimate need, did he criticize them for costing too much.

Quite the contrary. I just about fell off my chair in the Reagan Library when I heard him say this in a 1958 speech: “In the last few decades we have indulged in a great program of social progress with many welfare programs. I’m sure that most of us in spite of the cost wouldn’t buy many of these projects back at any price. They represented forward thinking on our part.”

He repeated similar sentiments in every speech I listened to, even saying in 1961, “Any person in the United State who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him.” That year, he supported an alternative to Medicare called the Kerr-Mills Act that gave federal funds to states so they could help poor senior citizens pay for medical care, even writing to a longtime friend that “if the money isn’t enough I think we should put up more.”

Reagan did not change his stripes as he became conservatism’s hero, and continued to preach his own unique conservative vision. He told viewers of the October 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech endorsing Goldwater, the speech that made him a national political star, that conservatives were for “telling our senior citizens that that no one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds.” He campaigned for governor of California saying talk “in America of left and right” was “disruptive talk, dividing us down the center.” He said his “Creative Society,” intended to be a non-bureaucratic alternative to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” wasn’t “some glorified program for passing the buck and telling people to play Samaritan and solve their problems on their own while government stands by to hand out Good Conduct ribbons.” And when he became governor, he pushed through a then-record tax increase after his efforts to “cut, squeeze, and trim” government could not balance the budget.

He didn’t alter his views when he ran for and became president either. He often said, “Those who, through no fault of their own, must depend on the rest of us” would be exempt from budget cuts. He pushed through three tax increases as president, one of which made Social Security solvent for the last 35 years.

Reagan got these ideas from FDR, and often paraphrased lines uttered by his one-time idol. The line that government should support “those who, through no fault of their own,” could not support themselves came from FDR, who used that exact phrase frequently to describe who deserved government help. In the “Time for Choosing” speech, Reagan chastised liberals by saying “the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s that so much they know isn’t so.” Reagan had adapted that line from a nearly identical variant uttered by FDR in his seventh fireside chat. Even Reagan’s famous closing statement in the 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, when he asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago, was a direct paraphrase of a section of FDR’s fifth fireside chat.

Conservative Republicans who didn’t cotton to FDR didn’t notice this, but the blue-collar voters who became known as “Reagan Democrats” sure did. During his governor’s race, Reagan’s margins were an astounding 36-44 percent larger than those of the 1962 Republican gubernatorial nominee, Richard Nixon, in towns dominated by blue-collar whites. He did dramatically better than other Republican presidential nominees in similar counties and towns when he ran for president, too. As one person told Reagan biographer Lou Cannon in 1984, “He isn’t really like a Republican. He’s more like an American, which is what we really need.”

Republicans and conservatives have forgotten those elements to Reagan’s thought and appeal, and have suffered at the polls ever since. The Republican nominee for president has received a majority of the popular vote only once since 1988. Most tellingly, Republican nominees before Trump consistently lost the Reagan Democrat-dominated states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, winning only one of those states (Iowa) in one race (2004).

When Republicans have come out victorious, it’s been mainly because the Democratic alternative has been worse, or because those Republicans have tacitly rejected Reaganism’s creed. The current Congressional majority, for example, is due to the 2010 and 2014 waves, which were clearly a reflection of anger at President Barack Obama rather than an endorsement of Reaganism. And Republican domination of statehouses and state legislatures has resulted mainly because these representatives have rejected Reaganism. Republican governors and state legislatures have continued to increase the size of government, cutting taxes on the margin but largely following the real Reagan by keeping services strong first. Governors like Kansas’ Sam Brownback, who tried to buck this consensus by cutting services to make up for deficits caused by large tax cuts, have failed. Even deep red state voters like most of the big government set in motion by FDR’s New Deal.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the national level are ignoring Reagan’s legacy by focusing too much on cutting popular programs and providing large tax cuts to people who are already doing quite well. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s insistence on making Medicare and Medicaid fiscally sustainable has led to plans that could end up denying medical care to the people who need these programs most. Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign put forth a tax plan that would have lowered the top rate paid by the richest taxpayers to a mere 10 percent, cutting federal revenues by over $8 trillion at a time when the aging of Baby Boomers would have started to significantly increase federal spending. It’s not that the Democrats’ solutions are any better, by the way, but the lesson of the 2012 election was that tired and stale Democratic proposals, even when pronounced by an unpopular standard bearer, beat Reaganism.

Trump is the most surprising and most recent example of Reaganism’s political failure. In 2016, he made active government in the service of the “forgotten American,” a phrase FDR and Reagan also used to describe working- and middle-class Americans, the centerpiece of his campaign. He trounced 16 GOP adversaries, most of whom (especially Cruz) campaigned on Reaganism’s principles. He then received an overwhelming swing vote from blue-collar whites—the same vote Reagan got, in exactly the regions of the country where Reagan did well—to capture the White House. He was the first Republican since Reagan to capture Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.

Trump is far from Reagan’s second coming: His tenure in office is decidedly unlike the Gipper’s in his tone and his approach to Russia. And he has veered in the direction of Reaganism at times: For one, the president supported Ryan’s Obamacare replacement bill (even though he later called it “mean” and the bill will cost many of those Trump Democrats their health care). Trump’s tax reform principles also veer far toward the supply-side “cut taxes for the rich” approach Reaganisn advocates, providing little-to-no direct tax relief for the Trump Democrats who put him in the Oval Office. But even so, Trump remains the Republican leader least wedded to Reaganism in many years. In fact, his combination of support of an active government in service of the average worker with other traditional GOP concerns such as deregulation and support for the pro-life agenda more closely mimics what Reagan actually said and believed than any other GOP national leader since. No wonder the types of voters who went for Reagan voted for Trump, too.

Reagan’s campaign slogan in 1980 was simple, yet profound: “The Time is Now: Reagan.” That is as true today as it was then. Replace Reaganism with the real Reagan, and the Republican Party can become “the New Republican Party” he spoke of before CPAC’s 1977 annual meeting.

That party, he said, was the party of “the man and the woman in the factories, the farmer, the cop on the beat.” It was a party that shunned ideology and recognized that conservatives come in different stripes with different concerns and priorities. It was a party that would make certain that “working men and women” would “have a say in what goes on in the party.” Without saying it directly, he implied it would be a party that interprets rather than tacitly opposes FDR’s New Deal.

Reagan made that point clear toward the end of his career. On Columbus Day, 1988, he told a group of Italian-Americans in New Jersey that the “party of FDR and Harry Truman” wasn’t dead. Instead, “the party that represents people like you and me, the party that represents a majority of Americans,” was alive—in the GOP. “You see,” he told his audience, “the secret is when the left took over the Democratic Party, we took over the Republican Party.”

Conservatives face a rendezvous with destiny, a time for choosing. They can choose to follow the false prophets of Reaganism, and thereby hand power over to the left for decades to come. Or they can embrace the real Reagan and finally create the New Republican Party he dreamed of, a party that can make America the shining city on a hill he always knew we could be.

Henry Olsen is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins). He is also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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