Today's Republicans might not elect Reagan

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 30, 2007 

WASHINGTON — They want to put his face on Mount Rushmore, but Republicans today are demanding such ideological purity that they might not even nominate Ronald Reagan for president if he were to run now.

Abortion? He was for abortion rights before he was against them.

Taxes? He raised them as governor, and raised them several times as president after his big 1981 tax cuts.

Immigration? He signed the law that Republicans now call amnesty for illegals.

Foreign policy? He negotiated with the head of the "Evil Empire."

In fact, they'd find him wrong on almost every hot-button issue of the 2008 campaign.

Most of those stands are overlooked in the Republicans' idealized rear-view idolization of Reagan as an unwavering conservative icon. But they serve as a reminder that even the revered Reagan was a pragmatic politician whose stands often changed and might not fit in today's politics.

The real Reagan story is forgotten as Republicans this year attack one another for past offenses even if they've moved toward conservative orthodoxy since. They criticize Mitt Romney for once supporting abortion rights, though he now opposes them. They tear into Mike Huckabee for raising some taxes as governor, ignoring his vow not to raise them as president. They rip Rudy Giuliani for once welcoming illegal immigrants to New York, though he takes a hard line now.

Through it all, they ignore the real Reagan.

"Their memories of Reagan are very selective," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "In some ways, they're creating a standard that is not real, that did not happen, and holding each other to that standard. I don't think Reagan himself would do well in this environment."

Take abortion.

Romney is routinely criticized as a flip-flopper for changing from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent while governor of Massachusetts. But regardless of whether his switch was born of principle or political expedience, he did change to the position that most Republican profess to want.

His defense is simple. He changed his mind, he says, "just like Ronald Reagan did."

He's right, to a degree.

As the governor of California, Reagan signed a 1967 law that allowed abortions in the state six years before the Supreme Court legalized them nationwide.

Author and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon noted that Reagan made that decision in a vastly different time, before the issue had become such an emotional flash point.

"Reagan had never considered the issue," Cannon said.

The party was more libertarian in philosophy then, and a top Republican in the state Senate predicted that the bill would put the issue behind them, so Reagan signed it. He changed his mind later, and told Cannon he wouldn't have signed the bill a year later.

"Hell, all these people change positions," Cannon said, "and legitimately so."

Or consider taxes.

Huckabee's rivals and the anti-tax group Club for Growth are attacking him for raising taxes while he was the governor of Arkansas. Yet he's promised not to raise taxes as president, and cites Reagan as proof that a politician can change.

"If Reagan were running today," Huckabee said this week, "the Club for Growth would be running ads against him because he raised taxes by a billion when he was governor of California."

Indeed, Reagan did sign a billion-dollar tax increase while he was governor in 1967. As president, he also signed several tax increases that offset some of his historic 1981 cut in federal income taxes.

Consider illegal immigration.

Giuliani and Romney snipe at each other over their records on this issue, accusing each other of offering "sanctuary" to illegal immigrants in New York City and Massachusetts.

Yet Reagan effectively turned the United States into a sanctuary when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave amnesty to illegals who were already here.

There were other times as well when Reagan took positions that would draw attacks in today's Republican presidential campaign.

Never withdraw troops? He pulled them out of Lebanon in 1984 after a suicide bomber killed 241 U.S. Marines.

Talk to our enemies? He personally negotiated and signed deals with a Soviet regime that he himself called the Evil Empire.

Curiously, he was able to thrive in his time in part because he hadn't yet unified the modern Republican Party in his conservative image.

He named Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, for example, and she later became the swing vote in upholding the right to abortion. He probably couldn't get away with that appointment today, just as President George W. Bush was forced to withdraw his nomination of Harriet Miers because he couldn't assure conservatives that she'd oppose abortion from the bench.

For now, much of the sniping over today's candidates' records reflects a close, wide-open race in which all of those running are desperate to prove their conservative credentials and to discredit their rivals.

Ultimately, said Grover Norquist, a conservative strategist and Reagan devotee, the Republicans should learn to look forward rather than back, and welcome those who move to the right.

"I am not a critic of those who say they once did a bad thing and are not going to do that anymore," Norquist said in an interview. "A successful political movement accepts converts. The Catholic Church doesn't say, 'If you weren't with us 10 years ago, you can't be with us now.' I am very much in favor of accepting converts."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service