The myth of Reagan: Senate candidate glosses over reality

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 19, 2014 

— . “I am a Reaganite,” Chris McDaniel proclaimed with pride.

He hushed the crowd at the community center Wednesday evening in Pearl, Miss., with his tale of how, when he was a 13-year-old, “my dad called me into a room” to watch a Ronald Reagan speech. McDaniel was mesmerized. Reagan was “talking about things that intuitively made sense to my Mississippi soul.”

Now vying for the Republican Senate nomination in Tuesday’s runoff election in Mississippi, McDaniel is typical of a new generation of conservatives whose gauzy memory of the 40th president blurs out the realities of a 1980s leader to make him the model for a new age.

McDaniel, for example, ticks off the agenda: a balanced budget, lower taxes, no amnesty for immigrants who are in the country illegally and no compromise with the Democrats.

“We’ve compromised too long,” he said. “We’ve got to find our conviction again.”

But President Reagan never balanced a budget. He presided over record federal deficits. He signed amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants. And he worked tirelessly with Democrats.

There’s particular irony in Mississippi: McDaniel’s opponent is six-term Sen. Thad Cochran, who served during Reagan’s presidency and was a loyal supporter.

Cochran rarely mentions Reagan on the campaign trail. McDaniel, who was 8 when Reagan took office in 1981, can’t get enough of the conservative icon.

“I cut my teeth and I believe strongly in the positions and principles of Ronald Reagan,” McDaniel explained. “He was for limited government, he was for balanced budgets, he was for liberty and freedom as it was traditionally understood. That’s who I am. That’s who I’ll always be.”

He closes his stump speech by quietly declaring, “Thank God for Ronald Reagan.”

Reminded that Reagan never balanced a budget and often compromised, McDaniel said, “He did the best he could, considering Democrats were in control of Congress.”

Republicans controlled the Senate for the first six years of Reagan’s presidency. While Democrats had a majority in the House of Representatives throughout his two terms, the caucus included dozens of “Boll Weevil Democrats” who routinely voted with Republicans on economic and national security matters.

Reagan “persuaded people to take reasonable positions,” said Sal Russo, adviser to Reagan when he was the governor of California and during his White House campaigns. Russo, a co-founder of the Tea Party Express, is pushing McDaniel.

Asked whether McDaniel should be invoking Reagan, he said, “You have to see things in context. These are different times,” when partisanship is harder to break down.

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Reagan’s White House political director, was less charitable. “Ronald Reagan flew under bold colors, and he knew what he stood for,” said Barbour, who supports Cochran. “But he also understood we had a two-party system.”

Barbour recalled that Reagan routinely aimed for 80 percent, not 100 percent. “These people who think purity is to be demanded are flying under false colors,” he said.

No matter. McDaniel says he’s a loyal Reagan disciple.

He signed a pledge in April opposing any measure that would grant any kind of work authorization for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

What about the children of such immigrants who are born in the U.S.?, asked Mary Grace Chambers, an Ackerman business owner.

“We want to be compassionate and kind, but we have to be a nation of laws,” McDaniel said.

One of Reagan’s best-known compromises was an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. He agreed in 1986 to legislation aimed at making it harder to hire immigrants who were here illegally, while allowing some of them to gain legal status.

McDaniel also vows to support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, an idea that’s gone nowhere for years.

Reagan talked about balance, but in fiscal 1982, his first full fiscal year in office, the federal budget deficit topped $100 billion for the first time ever. It never dropped below that during his eight years.

While he championed a 25 percent income-tax cut, it wasn’t coupled with spending reductions and thus drove deficits up. So in 1982 Congress passed, and Reagan signed, what was then the largest peacetime tax increase in American history.

The next year, he agreed to higher Social Security payroll taxes, forging an agreement with Democratic House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill.

Tea party loyalists argue that today’s voters should look beyond the specifics and consider Reagan’s philosophy.

“Much like Ronald Reagan, Chris McDaniel inspires people to seize the opportunities in front of them,” said Grant Sowell, a leader of the Tupelo Tea Party.

Reagan should be revered, said Jenny Beth Martin, the president of the national Tea Party Patriots, because “he did reform the tax code, and there was economic prosperity during his terms.”

Invoking Reagan today does carry risks. Because he’s become such an icon of the tea party movement and like-minded groups, there’s concern that his legacy might alienate less doctrinaire Republicans as well as swing voters.

Even in Mississippi, where Reagan won big margins twice, there’s reluctance among some politicians to lean on him too heavily _ after all, he’s been out of office for 25 years. Cochran likes to get local, recalling James Eastland and John Stennis, Mississippi Democrats who served in the Senate for decades.

That plays well. “They’re the reason we have many military bases and a space center,” said McComb attorney Ben Rowley.

It also has risks. Both senators opposed civil rights. “There were jealousies and conflicts between federal and state powers, but I’m talking about individuals from the delegation from our one state,” Cochran said.

Why not just play it safe and mention Reagan? “I’m running for the U.S. Senate. Those were examples of U.S. senators from our state who were successful,” Cochran explained.

Anyone who remembers Reagan, he figured, doesn’t need reminders of their relationship. Nor will they buy McDaniel’s hero worship.

After all, he said of McDaniel, “He’s wrong a lot.”

Email:; Twitter: @lightmandavid.

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