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What Would Ronald Reagan Make of Today's Republican Party?

05/06/2014 16:55 BST | Updated 05/08/2014 10:59 BST

They may not yet have secured a place for him on Mount Rushmore, but American conservatives have spent recent weeks attempting to rename a 3,366-foot mountain overlooking Las Vegas after Ronald Reagan.

The effort is part of anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, which aims to name something after the 40th president in each of America's 3,140 counties. California leads the way so far: it has named at least 20 places or features after its former governor. Reagan's birthplace, Illinois, has named 15 places after him, while Texas - displaying either a fine sense of irony or scant historical knowledge - has named a local Department of Education building after Reagan, despite the former president's desire to abolish the institution.

Having lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, it is unsurprising that Republicans are desperate to bask in a few rays from Reagan's reflected glory. In 2011, he ranked third in a poll of the most popular US president of the past 50 years behind Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

But, as America marks the 10th anniversary of his death this week, just how comfortable would Reagan himself be in today's Republican party? In his recent book, The Party's Over: How The Extreme Right Hijacked The GOP And I Became A Democrat, Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida who defected to the Democrats in 2012, claims that while both the dwindling band of Republican moderates and Tea Party hardliners claim Reagan as their own, the former president would be 'booed off the stage' at a convention of the later. Crist's predecessor as governor, Jeb Bush, made a similar suggestion two years when he hinted that both his father, George Bush Snr, and Reagan would have been too moderate to survive in today's Republican party, thanks to their openness to 'finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground' with their political opponents.

While the Tea Party may have arisen to resist Barack Obama's alleged plan to impose socialism on an unsuspecting American public, the 'Grand Old Party' has been propelled ever further rightwards by a dynamic which began with Barry Goldwater's capture of the Republican nomination 50 years ago this summer, and of which Reagan was both a part and a beneficiary.

Reagan may have surfed that conservative wave first to the governorship of California and then to the presidency but words frequently spoke louder than actions for the former actor. As Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, notes Reagan was 'not an ideological zealot'. As governor of California, he faced down opposition from conservative Republicans and secured bipartisan support for the highest tax increase in the state's history in order to balance a gaping budget deficit. Despite his pro-life position, Reagan signed the most liberal abortion law in the nation. And he surprised environmentalists by turning over vast swathes of land to California's national parks.

Pragmatism and a willingness to work with political opponents - hanging offences in today's Republican party - were also in evidence when Reagan entered the White House. He preferred, he would later say, partial victories to 'going off the cliff with all flags flying'.

Opposition to tax increases in any way, shape or form has become the defining issue for congressional Republicans and Reagan's 1981 budget - which cut taxes by 25 per cent - is venerated. But what about those that followed? As Will Bunch, author of Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy, argues, 'ultimately, Reagan signed measures that increased federal taxes every year of his two-term presidency except the first and the last.' In 1982, for instance, Reagan approved the largest peacetime tax increase in US peacetime history. The following year he signed off another tax rise having struck a deal with the Democrat speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, to shore up America's social security system. And in 1986, Reagan and O'Neill passed the Tax Reform Act, which lowered individual and corporate tax rates while eliminating loopholes. Together the measures amounted to the largest corporate tax increase in US history.

In his new book, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, O'Neill's former aide, the journalist Chris Matthews, describes a period when 'government met its deadlines, members of Congress listened and acted. Debates led to solutions. Shutdowns were averted.' It is perhaps too rosy a picture - the government shut down seven times when Reagan was in the White House and O'Neill the speaker - but the president's willingness to accept a hand proffered from across the aisle would be considered treasonous by many Republicans in one of their leaders today.

Bunch also suggests that Reagan was hardly the cultural warrior today's Republicans paint him as. He may have talked about his staunch opposition to abortion (ignoring his actions in California) but never sought a constitutional amendment banning it and his odd practice of addressing anti-abortion rallies by 'phone suggested a desire to, quite literally, keep his distance. Similarly, he talked about his support for school prayer, but never pressed for legislation on it.

For today's Republicans Reagan's role in 'winning' the cold war is proof positive that you don't talk to your enemies, you defeat them. It is true that Reagan was a fierce advocate of 'peace through strength' and embarked upon a massive arms build-up on entering the White House. However, Republican revisionism has airbrushed the fierce rightwing criticism which greeted Reagan's negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. Here's Richard Viguerie ticking off the conservative charge sheet against Reagan in 1987: 'Abortion, pornography, busing and economic issues, but at the core of the criticism is anti-communism. Across the board he seems to be deserting his anti-communist position he has had for the last 30 years.'

But it is not just on matters of governing that Reagan might find himself out-of-step with today's Republicans. Thirty years ago this November, Reagan won re-election with the highest electoral college vote ever recorded, carrying 49 of the 50 states. It was a victory which reflected the president's broad appeal: he won the support of nearly 1 in 4 registered Democrats and 46 per cent of union households. And it was one that also reflected Reagan's attempt - epitomised by his frequent reminders to voters that he, too, had begun life as a Democrat - to win the votes of those who normally supported his political opponents. It was a strategy which stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney's casual dismissal of the '47 per cent' who he deemed 'dependent on government' in 2012 and, therefore, unworthy of his attentions.

That Grover Norquist is leading the attempt to beatify Reagan is not without irony. His Taxpayer Protection Pledge - a promise to oppose all tax rises which Norquist demands Republican candidates sign up to - bears a large responsibility for the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington and symbolises the radicalisation of the party that Reagan once led. But, if they examined it a little more closely, Norquist and his acolytes might find that on this issue - as on a number of others - 'the Gipper's' record in office was nothing short of heretical.