Dispatch February 2010

No Room for Reagan

Even the Gipper would fail the litmus test that conservatives have created in his name.

In the end, chairman Michael Steele persuaded the Republican National Committee not to require that any candidate hoping to receive help from the party promise to support eight out of ten principles in the so-called Reagan Resolution. That requirement, pushed by some conservatives, has been reduced to mere suggestion under Steele’s leadership. Strike a blow for the party establishment over the "tea-party" element that has the GOP both excited and terrified. It is like a political hand grenade: it could blow up a lot of folks in the other party, if it doesn't explode in your own face first.

The resolution's namesake no doubt is looking down from heaven with approval. He was a great one for assertions of principle but never one for mean-spirited anathemas. It's a good thing, because if you judge from what he actually did as president, as opposed to what he said he would do—or, by the end, what he might have claimed (or even honestly believed) he had done—Ronald Reagan would not be able to sign the Reagan Resolution. Reagan had Alzheimer's, and is not to blame for his hazy memory. What is the excuse of the Republicans today, tea party or old party, who so completely misimagine the Reagan presidency?

Let's start with item one in the Resolution: "We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits, and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s ‘stimulus’ bill." During Reagan's presidency, federal government spending rose from $517 billion to $991 billion. As a share of GDP, spending rose from 21.7 percent of the economy to 22.9 percent of the economy, before ending as Reagan left office at 21.3 percent. So the "Reagan Revolution" increased the size of government by 92 percent in dollar terms and reduced it by a whopping 0.4 percent as a share of GDP. The number of federal civilian employees went up. He added one cabinet department, and eliminated none. The deficit rose from 4.9 percent of GDP to 5.8 percent. The national debt rose from $909 billion to 2.6 trillion. (By contrast, under Democrat Bill Clinton, federal spending dropped from 22.1 percent of the economy to 18.4 percent – a drop of more than five percent.) Federal taxes as a share of the economy did decline slightly under Reagan, from 19 percent to 18.2 percent. But the Republican theory that cutting taxes would force the government to cut spending was not borne out.

Item number two says, "We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare." Reagan as president did not support any kind of health care reform. It's true that in the 1960s Reagan the actor made television commercials opposing Medicare as "socialized medicine." But Republicans no longer oppose Medicare or consider it to be to be "government-run."

Numbers three and four are opposition to cap-and-trade and union card check. Let's give them these, although the tea partiers' contention that "we support market-based energy reforms" is puzzling, since cap-and-trade is market-based. But that kind of purposeful confusion is very Reaganesque.

Number five says:"We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants." Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli law that authorized the most recent amnesty.

Would Reagan have supported "containment" of Iran and North Korea, and more troops for "victory" in Iraq and Afghanistan (numbers six and seven)? Hard to say. The official Reagan administration policy actually was public support of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, although, as we now know, Reagan was secretly funneling weapons to Iran.

No doubt Reagan would have been in favor of retaining the absurd Defense of Marriage Act (number eight). Even Barack Obama supports it and voted for it in the Senate. No politician admits to supporting "health care rationing" or "denial of health care" (promising not to support these things is number nine), although by doing nothing to reform our current system, Reagan allowed both to occur. As for the last item—"opposing government restrictions on gun ownership"—in 1991, after leaving office, Reagan wrote (or at least signed) a New York Times op-ed urging his successor, George H.W. Bush, to sign the Brady Bill, a gun control law named for Reagan's first press secretary, who was badly injured in John Hinckley's assassination attempt on Reagan.

 The "Reagan Resolution" allows for only two apostasies per candidate. By my count, Ronald Reagan committed at least four. Good thing Chairman Steele made the whole thing voluntary. It would be sad to think that the Republican Party no longer has room for Ronald Reagan.

Michael Kinsley works for the Atlantic Media Company.
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Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

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