In every presidential election, Republican candidates audition to play the role of Ronald Reagan.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman even launched his presidential campaign from the same spot Reagan announced his first run.
But looking at the GOP field today you have to wonder: Do the candidates want to mimic Reagan’s politics or just his persona?
To his fans Reagan was a conservative cowboy who kept the private sector as free from the long arm of the law as the Wild West and remained wary of a powerful government. In office, Reagan didn’t always practice what he preached.
In a 2003 piece for the conservative Weekly Standard entitled “Reagan’s Liberal Legacy”, Joshua Green argued that Reagan did more to expand the liberal agenda than the conservative program. After all, Reagan grew the federal deficit more than all other presidents since George Washington combined. He didn’t gut federal agencies like he promised, he created new departments like the enormous and expensive Department of Veterans Affairs!
After trying (and failing) to disembowel Social Security, Reagan did an dramatic about-face and bailed out the program to the tune of $165 billion and made Social Security taxes more progressive, forcing upper-income Americans to shoulder more of the burden than their poor counterparts.
Reagan raised taxes 11 times! He passed the largest tax increase since World War II and introduced hefty new corporate taxes.
While conservatives like Sarah Palin tout Reagan’s record for standing up to the Soviet Union, they ignore that Reagan was attacked by far-right conservatives for being too conciliatory to the Communist bloc. When Reagan engaged in direct talks with Gorbachev and the Soviets, conservative leader Paul Wyerich wrote in The Washington Post, “Reagan is a weakened president, weakened in spirit as well as clout.”
The rhetoric on both the left and right suggests there were two Reagans -- one for each ideology he employed over two terms. If conservatives believe Reagan was a good president, what made him good was not his ideological rhetoric but his actions as a leader, including many moderate and even left-leaning initiatives. Coming on the heels of the liberal agenda of the 1960s and 1970s and supported by the rising Christian Right, Reagan may have seemed like an extreme conservative figure. In reality, and especially by today’s standards, he was a fairly moderate figure.
Today's Republicans don’t like moderates -- or moderation for that matter.
During the negotiations during the debt ceiling crisis, while 69% of Democrats wanted their leaders to compromise with Republicans in order to avoid a government shutdown, 50% of Republicans wanted their leaders to stand firm on principles and not compromise with Democrats, even if a government shut down was the result.
It’s impossible to know which became more extreme first -- the voter chickens or the candidate eggs. Either way, it’s clear that Ronald Reagan no longer represents the yolk of American conservativism.
South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham has said in the Tea Party climate, “Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican”.
In fact, the real Reagan, a man who was politically and ideologically pragmatic, probably wouldn’t even win fourth place in a Tea Party era straw poll.
Reagan the actor is readily used to play the starring role in the Tea Party legend.
But if the Republican Party keeps descending toward its radical rightward tilt, even the fictionalized ultra-conservative super-hero version of Reagan may be too moderate for the Republican extremists to worship.
Sally Kohn is the founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots think tank.