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Tilting at Windmills

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June 8, 2010

REAGAN'S LIBERAL LEGACY, CONT'D.... California Republicans will nominate their next gubernatorial candidate today, and by all indications, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman will have little trouble defeating state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. The L.A. Times' George Skelton takes note of a candidate who would have fared poorly in the primary, had he run on his record.

As governor, Reagan was the biggest California spender of the last half century. Under him, state spending leaped 177%. And as president, he spent like the proverbial drunken sailor to expand the Navy and the nuclear missile arsenal while winning the Cold War. He left Washington with a then-record national debt.

His first year as governor, Reagan raised taxes equal to 30% of the state general fund, still a modern record. And as president, he increased taxes several times, although conservatives pretend to remember only the one big tax cut.

As governor, Reagan also helped create the nation's first tailpipe emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, and expanded Medi-Cal, the nation's largest Medicaid program (socialized medicine). Immigration, not surprisingly, has been pretty important in this year's gubernatorial primary, which also makes it worth mentioning that Reagan also backed an amnesty bill in 1986.

As Skelton put it, "Today, Reagan would be branded 'just another liberal politician' by the likes of Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner."

Reagan biographer Lou Cannon conceded, "Reagan would be hard pressed to get nominated today. Today he would not be in the conservative mainstream. He just simply would not be."

Of course, it's not just California Republicans. Newsweek's Andrew Romano recently noted, "[T]he GOP has drifted so far right that it's retroactively disqualified the only Republicans since 1960 who've actually managed to, you know, win national elections." Reagan, Romano added wouldn't "come close to satisfying the Republican base" if he ran today.

Given Reagan's willingness to break with conservative orthodoxy, this seems obviously true. Skelton noted his record as governor, but let's also not forget that, once in the White House, Reagan grew the size of government, tripled the deficit, raised taxes in seven of his eight years in office, supported the Brady Bill gun-control proposal, negotiated with an "evil empire" that had vowed to wipe the U.S. off the map, and cut and ran from Beirut.

Just to be clear, I'm not seriously arguing that Reagan was some kind of centrist, because that's just not what the record shows. He was, for his time, a pretty conservative Republican. The point is that the GOP has shifted so quickly and aggressively to the hard-right that the party has nothing but disdain for Reagan's actual policies. The notion that today's GOP would have the slightest tolerance for a Republican candidate with Reagan's record is practically laughable.

So-called "Reagan Republicans," in other words, should want nothing to do with Reagan.

Update: Adam Blickstein reminds me that Reagan also wanted to abolish all nuclear weapons. When Obama voiced support for eventually reaching that same goal, Republicans howled, suggesting the GOP also has no use for Reagan's identical vision.

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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What a load of drivel! It is contempable of you to treat our greatest president with such obvious disrespect and lies.

We republicans know that Ronald Reagan single-handedly won the cold war, defeated the democrats, balanced the budget, and cut taxes every year. And we are not about to let facts interfere with our beliefs.

Posted by: RepublicanPointOfView on June 8, 2010 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Reagan started the revolution, which quickly outgrew his pragmatic governing style. But we should remember that Reagan's appeal was that of a Rorschach-test conservative. Libertarians loved him and so did social conservatives. Paleos claimed him and so did Neos. Ultimately, it was his personality and anti-modern political persona (read: anti-minority) that made him the primary hero on the Right. We could chat all day about the hypocrisy that attends ideologues who are forced to compromise and live in the real world. It doesn't matter at all to them because it's not the words they hear but the music.

Posted by: walt on June 8, 2010 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

Burning down the library

"Today, Reagan would be branded 'just another liberal politician' by the likes of Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner."

It's way worse that that. Compared to candidates in the rest of the country, Jill Stewart in the NYT argues that these two Californians are fighting to embrace the middle. Here's a taste of her op-ed The Golden (State) Mean:

The two wealthy candidates — Ms. Whitman’s fortune is well known, Mr. Poizner earned his from digital mapping and G.P.S. innovations — have spent a cool $105 million since the beginning of 2009. In a state where only about 31 percent of voters are registered Republicans, Ms. Whitman drove straight for the center with a saturation campaign highly focused on jobs, schools and government overspending...

The middle ain't what it used to be. Nor is the country. It almost looks like candidates and voters think that more republicanism can cure what more republicanism has caused. It's like throwing accelerant on a fire. Or if you will: burning down the house. I suspect we are only a few years away from hearing candidates argue that public libraries should be closed...

Posted by: koreyel on June 8, 2010 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

In 2010 Reagan would be thrown threw the Overton Window.

Posted by: MikeBoyScout on June 8, 2010 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

As said elsewhere, without Progressive leadership from Obama, the best that can be hoped for is half-effective measures on climate change-- same as for job stimulation, health care, oil spills, financial reform, Iraq, Afghanistan... whatever. Obama and the Senate Dems aim low-- then compromise lower. And don't give me BS about far-left positions. Most of what in needed today would have been supported by Nixon, Ford, Johnson,Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, FDR, TR. Probaby Benito Mussolini, for that matter.

Posted by: gdb on June 8, 2010 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

And let us not forget Ronaldus Magnus' commie pinko islamo words about torture.

"Governments that must answer to their peoples do not launch wars of aggression. That's why the American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores."

Posted by: MikeBoyScout on June 8, 2010 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

The one point I differ with you on here is w/respect to Reagan's deficits. Oh, I acknowledge his great deficit spending, I just disagree with the idea that Republicans don't support that.

In my lifetime, Republicans have NEVER had a problem with deficit spending . . . unless a Democrat was in office. Reagan and Bush the Smarter ran up huge deficits and then, when Clinton was in office, Ol' Uncle Alan Greenspan told him that he had to scale back his government policies and get the budget in order so as to "calm the bond markets."

What we see w/Obama is the same, except writ on a much larger scale. Bush the Dumber EXPLODED the national deficit, and no one said boo. It is only now, when Obama is in office and might use the power of the gov't to enact some progressive (or, at least, not regressive) policies, do the Republicans all jump on the deficit boogey-man train.

Posted by: swellsman on June 8, 2010 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

If Reagan were still around today, he'd pander to the right like all the other Republicans.

Posted by: lgoak on June 8, 2010 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

The only people who will fall for this "liberal Reagan" narrative are hard-core liberals. His reputation is too firmly established to be destroyed.

Posted by: Al on June 8, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Of course, the legend of Reagan is far different than Reagan, the man.

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

-Maxwell Scott in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

Posted by: howie on June 8, 2010 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

wow. a bit of truth from our favorite faux troll al! except i'd change the word reputation to mythology. conservative see only what they want in reagan, but that's always been the case.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on June 8, 2010 at 2:40 PM | PERMALINK

Reagan was also not investigated for raping actress Selene Walters, the way Clinton was investigated for supposedly raping Juanota Broadrick.

Posted by: Sam Simple on June 8, 2010 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

According to the radio this morning, Whitman has spent over $80 million of her own money on the primary.

Given that the job doesn't pay that well, and a rich person never puts any significant of their own money towards something without expecting a hefty return on investment, how is Meg planning on recuperating that money?

Posted by: doubtful on June 8, 2010 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

with a big h/t to will bunch, "Tear Down This Myth!"

Posted by: mellowjohn on June 8, 2010 at 3:33 PM | PERMALINK

Great article on Reagan on today's Slate.com

Posted by: J on June 8, 2010 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

"Governments that must answer to their peoples do not launch wars of aggression. That's why the American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores."

Given what was going on in Central and South America during Reagan's tenure, more hypocritical words were never spoken.

Posted by: jonas on June 8, 2010 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think it's necessarily about rewriting history as it is about the difference between what they say vs. what they do. George W. Bush increased the size of gov't, whittled away privacy rights and civil freedoms as bad as any Commun-Nazi-Social-whatever, passed the largest health care spending bill in history (Medicare Part D was at the time of passage bigger in $ terms than Obamacare), and yet all conservative and teabaggers still want him back.

They will never do whatever it is they say they want to do or going to do... Reagan, Bush, Rand Paul included. That's the message to deliver to any right-leaning acquaintances.

Posted by: Philonius on June 8, 2010 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

And, as usual, the sorry remnants who call themselves the American left miss the lesson.

In practice, a lot of Reagan's policies were insufficiently conservative to satisfy the hard right activists of the time, but they adored him nonetheless and kept their complaints in-house and below the radar. They adored him in part for the rhetoric and the retrograde racial policies, but in large part they adored him because they recognized that what, in hindsight, was a very incremental shift of public policy to the right during his first term would set the trajectory of public policy, and reset the basic "default" position of public political assumptions, for a generation or more to come.

None of them were screaming about "tepid incrementalism" or constantly stamping their feet in outrage over his limited forays into working across party lines because they had consciously accepted that they were engaged in a generational project and that changing the trajectory of policy and the basic assumptions of the electorate began with showing people raised on two generations of New Deal assumptions that the world would not, in fact, end immediately if some more conservative policies were put into place.

Obama has quite consciously set about trying to do for the left what Reagan did for the right. And what he gets for his trouble is a steady torrent of sneering and invective and constant outrage that undermines the viability of the entire project.

Maybe the real difference is that Reagan didn't have to contend with the Internet where every minute is it's own news cycle and every angry voice gets its own megaphone. But I think the truth is that the corporate mindset that created a penchant for planning and teamwork and the natural latent authoritarianism of the right combined to create something that, for several years, was the functional (though absolutely not actual) equivalent of wisdom.

Posted by: Steve (Not That One) on June 8, 2010 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but it's also the middle that has moved. After all, Obama's health plan (I refuse to use the term Obamacare) was significantly less progressive than even Clinton's, let alone Truman's. Truman could not win in today's Democratic primary, having started a war of choice in Korea and with tepid support of civil rights. Hell, Kennedy, with his "missile gap," would not be the choice of a new generation, either.

It is foolish to take positions of 30 years ago and argue that they are unfit for today's circumstances. As a liberal, I didn't grow up pining for the programs of Roosevelt, who was 30 years before me. I grew up hoping for new, better ideas that included learning lessons from the intervening 30 years.

And it is equally foolish to hold conservatives for that standard. Reagan is revered on the right for his drive to a different vision of the nation. It is a view I find abhorrent and that I think led to innumerably long term problems, but it was a view for and of his time. Current wingers want the same view of government, that it is the problem rather than a solution, but applied to a different set of circumstances.

To put it another way, it in no way lessens my admiration for Lincoln, Jefferson or even Victoria Woodhull to suggest that their answers to the questions they faced are different than my own answers. The world has changed significantly in 30 years. It is simply silly to act like it hasn't and demand fealty to the positions Reagan took. He's an inspiration and an icon, not a prophet.

And I can't believe I just defended Ronald Reagan, a man whose policies I have hated for a long, long time. It takes a special kind of rejection of your premises to make me do that.

Posted by: Ron on June 8, 2010 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans have completely rewritten Republican Reagan's history.

THE TRUTH ABOUT REAGAN: (By Republican 'standards')

Republican Reagan negotiated with and "appeased" the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union.

Republican Reagan "cut and ran" from Lebanon after the terrorist attack on American Marines.

Republican Reagan negotiated and armed the terrorist Iranian regime.

Republican Reagan armed terrorists in South America.

Republican Reagan LIED about his military service (repeatedly).

Republican Reagan was an effete Hollywood con-artist who betrayed his first wife and abandoned his children.

Republican Reagan repeatedly raised taxes on working Americans (while giving free passes to the ultra-wealthy).

Republican Reagan nearly tripled the US debt (add in interest on Republican Reagan's debt and he more than tripled the US debt).

Republican Reagan's legacy amongst right-wingers relies on right-wingers willingness to tell Big Lies (and believe nonsense) about Republican Reagan's TRUE history.

Posted by: Annoyed on June 8, 2010 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

Ronald Reagan was like a right wing gateway drug and the hard-core conservatives who make up the Republican base these days owe a great deal to Reagan's skills as salesman weaving together fact and fable to make conservatism easier to digest for Americans who are still liberal whether they know it or not.

No one would ever deny Reagan his conservative bona fides. Yet, as Joshua Green wrote in these pages several years ago the legacy that Reagan left us is largely a liberal one.

The Reagan who promised to roll back liberalism in all its manifestations, was the same president who met the realities of office as a realist.

In foreign affairs, Reagan's fulminations against the evil Soviet empire did not prevent him from concluding an arms control agreement with Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1987.

In the divisive area of morals, Reagan's sermons on the sanctity of life and the sinfulness of liberal assaults against family values did not produce a wholesale rollback on access to abortions or a crackdown on R-rated movies.

Faced with growing budget deficits, Reagan raised taxes four times between 1982 and 1984. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 alone raised corporate taxes $120 billion over five years, and closed corporate loopholes worth twice that over the same period. At the same time, Reagan eliminated all federal tax obligations owed by Americans below the poverty line.

Instead of slashing the federal government once he became president, the government actually grew under Reagan. Promising to abolish the departments of Energy and Education, Reagan added the Department of Veterans Affairs to his cabinet instead.

And rather than repeal Social Security, Reagan committed conservative apostasy when he conspired with Tip O'Neill and other Democrats to rescue America's historic safety net, at least temporarily.

Conservatism was a back-water faith in the 1950s when its true nature was plain for all to see. How fitting that the man who led a Reagan Revolution to scale liberalism's barricades was an early disciple of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Reagan's liberalsm has not prevented revisionist conservatives from mythologizing that Ronald Reagan was the fountainhead of uncontaminated Right Wing orthodoxy, whose popularity with the American people is offered as proof of the public's conversion to conservatism. Yet, the correlation is false.

Yet, the reactionary strain of Republicanism that exploits the memory of Ronald Reagan for emotional cover, will eventually crumble under its own weight and contradictions as it seeks to erect an edifice of decayed, caste-driven authoritarian conservatism upon a foundation of tolerant, egalitarian American democratic liberalism.

Contemporary American conservatism is a house of cards nailed together with nothing more substantial than stirring but hollow rhetoric about liberty, freedom, opportunity and democracy, and sealed with a mortar of sunny optimism and anthems for the common man.

Posted by: Ted Frier on June 8, 2010 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

The executive branch has, what, say 500 people in it with some degree of real power or influence? Reagan wouldn't have been a terrible president as Republicans go if he'd managed to appoint more than a dozen of them who weren't corrupt, incompetent, insane, or straight-up mustache-twirling evil motherfuckers.

But then, I don't think any of us would want to argue that Reagan had the awareness or the will necessary to rein in the slate of subordinates that he signed off on. He knew how to smile for the cameras, and dance with those what brung him, and he was probably just smart enough to know that he was better off not really asking too many questions about what was being done on his watch.

Posted by: Matt on June 8, 2010 at 4:47 PM | PERMALINK

In 1967, as governor of California, Reagan signed the largest tax increase in California's history to that point, one that would be worth $6 billion in today's dollars. He realized that cuts alone wouldn't solve California's budget problems, so he worked with the legislature to pass a tax package. One of his biographers, Lou Cannon, wrote about this tax increase in the L.A. Times during one of California's many budget crises: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-op-cannon15-2008jun15,0,7811600.story

Posted by: meander on June 8, 2010 at 4:52 PM | PERMALINK

Ronald Reagan was an intellectual cipher whose every idea about politics was put in his head by his corporate handlers. If Reagan were running for office today, he wouldn't be the Reagan of the 80's, because he'd be reading off a different set of cue cards.

Posted by: dr sardonicus on June 8, 2010 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK

We cannot blame the republicans for taking office if we as democrats refuse to fight. We allow the republicans spew wildly about conjured up facts without reproach. We dont hold them accountable to any standard. This week alone Sarah Palin actually blamed the environmentalist for the oil-spill and Time/CNN carried the story. So if a creditable? organization such as Time/CNN carried the story, its got to be true right?

I would bet that 80% of the Californians out there dont know Reagan was the biggest California spender of the last half-century or that he raised taxes equal to 30% of the state general fund.

And 80% Californians will never know because they will never be told. Most Americans today are just trying desperately to keep a roof over their head and food on the table and are miserable to boot. We have become a fast-food society and cant remember what we had for breakfast this morning much less yesterday and we will follow those who are the loudest and can serve up the gruel the fastest. That, my friends is a Republican Party specialty.

Posted by: tink on June 9, 2010 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

One could write volumes on Reagan; my first experience with the damage he did to America was his cuts for the care of disabled children. Several of my fellow Rehab nurses and I stood in the middle of the hallway, absolutely stunned that such a thing could happen, after we'd made some genuine progress in the care of society's most needy folk. Good details on Ron are found in Mark Hertsgaard's book, On Bended Knee: The Press and The Reagan Presidency. How anyone can determine that the anti-worker, slick operator Reagan was 'a great President' is beyond me. He was a disaster: and Nancy? Spending a fortune on clothes and new dishes while people saw their livelihoods and options continue to shrink. Then, there is the coup-de-gras of folly; Ron deciding that Catsup is a 'vegetable' for children's lunches. Enough. We continue to reel out of focus, based on the damages he and his followers have done.

Posted by: Kathleen Walsh RN on July 1, 2010 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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