Monday, Feb. 6, was Ronald Reagan’s birthday, and once again Republicans paid homage to the Gipper — perhaps the only Republican, apart from Abraham Lincoln, about whom no GOPer dares speak ill. Reagan is to Republican candidates what Kim Il Sung is to North Korean apparatchiks. It’s not good enough to say you love and admire Reagan; you’ve got to outdo the other guy in demonstrating the depth of your love for the man. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, for instance, have spent weeks bickering about which of them best represents the Reagan legacy, including a textual examination of the man’s diaries.
What Republicans like Gingrich and Romney ignore, however, is that even Reagan wasn’t quite the Reagan of their memory. Certainly the real Reagan would have some explaining to do to a Republican Party that has shifted to the right in the 23 years since he left office. Today’s conservative Republicans are loath to compromise with Democrats and militant about not raising taxes. But in 1983 Reagan worked with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to come up with a bipartisan plan to reform Social Security. He also worked with liberal Democratic Senator Bill Bradley, among others, to pass a major tax-reform bill in 1986. Admittedly, that tax bill did not raise taxes — it was revenue neutral. But Reagan did, in fact, raise taxes several times during his presidency, including a 1982 tax hike aimed at reining in the deficit.
Reagan’s record runs left of current GOP dogma in other ways. Most Republicans today insist that Bill Clinton emboldened al-Qaeda by not retaliating more forcefully to terrorist events like the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing and the first World Trade Center attack. But when a suicide bomber killed hundreds of U.S. Marines in their Beirut barracks, Reagan yanked America’s military out of Lebanon — and didn’t retaliate (prompting complaints from Republican hawks even then). He fretted about basing a counterstrike on murky intelligence and the possibility of civilian casualties. Imagine how Gingrich would respond if Barack Obama tried an excuse like that.
Nuclear weapons? Sure, we all remember how Reagan stared down the Soviets militarily. Less discussed is that he was a starry-eyed believer in a future world free of nuclear weapons. “We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth,” Reagan declared in his 1985 Inaugural Address. Guess who else believes strongly in a nuclear-weapons-free world?
If you want more, read Joshua Green’s long take on this topic. Needless to say, Reagan was no liberal. But his legacy is more complex than today’s Republicans make it out to be. That’s party a natural function of political romanticism. Most Democrats, after all, prefer the rosiest possible view of Jack Kennedy. But it also tells you something about how the GOP itself has changed over the past two decades.