Even Reagan Wasn't a Reagan Republican

gop-presidents-ronald-reagan-wide-horizontal
Courtesy the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

In the year and a half since Barack Obama was elected president, Republicans nationwide seem to have given up on the whole governing thing and chosen instead to play a long, rancorous game of “I’m More Conservative Than You Are.” They’ve been playing it in Utah, where incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett—lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 84—lost a primary battle this past weekend. They’ve been playing it in Florida, where moderate Gov. Charlie Crist was forced last week to abandon his bid for the Republican Senate nomination and run as an independent instead. And they’ve even been playing it on the national stage, where the RNC recently toyed with the idea of imposing a purity test on potential GOP candidates. Comply with eight of the party’s 10 “Reaganite” principles, the thinking went, and you’re worthy of funding. Fall short, and you might as well be Leon Trotsky.

Conservatives would claim that the Republican Party can only regain power by “returning to its roots” and banishing heretics. But a funny thing happened on the way to winning national elections again: the 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. Based on their public statements, policy proposals, and accomplishments while in office, none of the modern Republican presidents—not Richard Nixon, not Gerald Ford, not George H.W. Bush, not even Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush—would come close to satisfying the Republican base if they were seeking election today.

The point is not that these guys were liberals. It’s that the GOP is at risk of becoming so dogmatic that it would exclude even its most iconic members. Preemptively ruling out the sort of pragmatic policies that have worked in the past is a novel strategy, and it clearly plays to the passions of the moment. But unless the demographic evidence is wildly inaccurate and the country is, in fact, growing more and more right wing over time, it’s probably not a strategy that’s going to work particularly well in the future.

Click through to see why the past five Republican presidents wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s GOP.

RICHARD NIXON (1969–74)

Fiscal Policy

gop-presidents-richard-nixon-wide Courtesy the National Archives

Government spending is the area where Nixon had the most in common with contemporary conservatives. Having long opposed deficits, he introduced, in 1969, the only balanced budget between 1961 and 1998, and overall, he managed to slash billions of dollars in federal spending before leaving office in 1974. Still, today’s Republicans would disapprove of almost all of the rest of Nixon’s fiscal decisions as president. After 1969, every one of his budgets included deficits; as he put it at the time, “We are all Keynesians now.” He indexed Social Security for inflation, which, along with increased Medicare spending, helped boost government benefits from 6.3 percent of the Gross National Product (GNP) to 8.9 percent over the course of his administration. Food aid and public assistance also jumped during the Nixon years, from $6.6 billion to $9.1 billion. Nixon repeatedly set wage and price controls, prompting economic adviser Herbert Stein to later declare that his boss had imposed “more new regulation ... on the economy” than “any other administration.” The top tax rate went up during Nixon’s first three years in office. He even increased spending on federal employees. Worst of all, Nixon was the guy who detached the dollar from the gold standard—a move that would’ve done little to endear him to the gold bugs who now dominate the Glenn Beck wing of the GOP.

Domestic Policy

On the domestic front, Nixon would be Democrat by today’s standards. He legislated like an environmentalist, signing the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972, all while establishing new government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Council on Environmental Quality. He lowered the national speed limit to 55 miles per hour—the sort of one-size-fits-all, nanny-state solution that contemporary conservatives abhor. In 1970, he implemented the Philadelphia Plan—the federal government’s first significant affirmative-action program. Four years later, he introduced a comprehensive health-insurance-reform bill far more liberal than the bill that eventually became Obama’s plan. Like the new national law, Nixon’s plan included an individual mandate. But it also called for a government-run “public option”—a policy that today’s Republicans tend to characterize as “socialism.” Apparently, Nixon—a guy who thought Jews and communists were “trying to destroy” him —was actually a pinko himself. Who knew?

Foreign Policy

For Republicans who now “support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges,” as the RNC’s purity test put it, Nixon’s approach to Vietnam would’ve sounded suspiciously like surrender. Between 1969 and 1972 he reduced the number of troops in Vietnam by 405,000, and in 1973 he ended the draft. Overall, he slashed defense spending from 9.1 percent to 5.8 percent of GNP as he worked to withdraw from Southeast Asia—a process he described not as “victory” but with the Kerry-worthy euphemism “peace with honor.” Nixon also pursued direct engagement with enemies like China and Russia and even supported strengthening Iran in order to check Soviet power. Surely Dick Cheney would disapprove.

Social Views

Given that he did more to legalize abortion than any other president, Nixon would probably be pretty unpopular with the GOP’s evangelical base if he were a current candidate for office. When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, seven justices ruled in favor and only two opposed. Of those seven, three (Warren Burger, Lewis Powell, and Harry Blackmun) were Nixon appointees. In other words, by failing to appoint more justices like William Rehnquist, his fourth nominee, Nixon indirectly tipped the court in favor of abortion rights. What’s more, Nixon refused to comment on Roe, and although he privately expressed some ambivalence, he also admitted that “there are times when an abortion is necessary.” Good luck winning the Republican nod with that record.

Purity Rating

2/10 (with 10 being perfect pure)

GERALD FORD (1974–77)

gop-presidents-gerald-ford-wide Courtesy the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

Fiscal Policy

There’s nothing that contemporary conservatives say they hate more than raising taxes and growing the deficit. Unfortunately, Ford had the gall to propose the former and actually carry out out the latter. In October 1974, the new president put forward an anti-inflation plan called Whip Inflation Now (WIN), which called for tax hikes coupled with reductions in federal spending. Meanwhile, government spending went up, not down, on Ford’s watch, and he ran a budget deficit every year. At the time, these were pragmatic decisions. But they’d almost certainly sink him with today’s purity-obsessed GOP.

Domestic Policy

Like Obama, Ford had the misfortune to govern during a deep recession. But instead of freezing all discretionary spending—which is what today’s conservatives would advocate—Ford allocated millions of federal dollars to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which established special education throughout the United States. It isn’t hard to imagine what Rush Limbaugh would have to say about such a “waste” of taxpayer dollars.

Foreign Policy

During the Obama administration’s recent tiff with Israel, Republicans could barely contain their rage. The Wall Street Journal opinion page, for example, fumed that the White House was “transform[ing] itself ... into another set of lawyers for the Palestinians.” But Obama’s friction with Jerusalem was nothing compared to the spat Ford presided over. Frustrated with Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate with Egypt, Ford, who privately expressed ““profound disappointment in Israel” and said the Jewish nation’s “stalling ... tactics” “made [him] mad as hell,” conducted a full “reassessment of United States policy in the region” and eventually cut off all aid to Jerusalem for six months between March and September of 1975. According to Yitzak Rabin, it was “one of the worst periods in American-Israeli” relations. Ford also signed the Helsinki Accords, which recognized Soviet domination of the Baltic states, and negotiated to cede the Panama Canal to Panama—decisions that were unacceptable to conservatives even then.

Social Views

When Ford nominated John Paul Stevens for the Supreme Court, he didn’t ask a single question about abortion. He was simply looking, as he put it, for the “finest legal mind [he] could find,” and later, as Stevens started to side with the liberal wing of the court, Ford refused to apologize. “I am prepared to allow history’s judgment of my term in office to rest (if necessary, exclusively) on my nomination 30 years ago of John Paul Stevens to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Ford wrote in 2005. This type of litmusless approach would enrage conservatives today. What’s more, Ford was more liberal than conservative on the two of the biggest social issues of the last half-century: abortion (he called himself “pro-choice” in a 1998 interview with Larry King) and gay rights (“I think they ought to be treated equally. Period,” he said in 2001).

Purity Rating

1/10

RONALD REAGAN (1981–89)

gop-presidents-ronald-reagan-wide-horizontal Courtesy the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Fiscal Policy

The RNC based its purity test on Ronald Reagan’s “principles”—chief among them a belief in “smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits, and lower taxes.” But although the Gipper slashed taxes dramatically during his first year in office, the rest of his fiscal record directly violated the very rules the RNC created in his honor. During the Reagan years, federal employment grew by more than 60,000 (in contrast, government payrolls shrunk by 373,000 during Bill Clinton’s presidency). The gap between the amount of money the federal government took in and the amount it spent nearly tripled. The national debt soared from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and the U.S. transformed from the world’s largest international creditor to its largest debtor. After 1981, Reagan raised taxes nearly every year: 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1986. The 1983 payroll tax hike even helped fund Medicare and Social Security—or, in terms today’s Tea Partiers might recognize, “government-run health care” and “socialism.”

Domestic Policy

Were it enacted, the RNC’s Ronald Reagan purity test would’ve also put Reagan in the crosshairs for a number of his signature domestic policies. “Oppose Obama-style government run health care”? As governor of California, Reagan nurtured and eventually expanded Medi-Cal, the nation’s largest Medicaid program. Support “market-based energy reforms”? In California, Reagan established the Air Resources Board to intervene in the market and fight smog; as president, he signed more wilderness-protections laws than any president before or since. “Oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants”? In 1986, Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which eventually granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, and he continued to speak out for immigration rights after leaving office. Support “the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership”? Actually, Reagan was a staunch backer of the Brady Bill, urging Congress in 1991 to “enact it without further delay.” To win the RNC’s blessing, according to the purity test, a candidate would’ve had to support eight of 10 so-called Reaganite principles. But Reagan himself wouldn’t have come close.

Foreign Policy

Foreign policy is where Reagan seems safest, at least at first glance. But despite his Cold Warrior bona fides, the Gipper still would’ve had a tough time pleasing today’s conservatives. For starters, he refused to send more troops to the region when Hizbullah murdered 243 U.S. servicemen in Beirut in 1983, choosing instead to immediately withdraw the Marines remaining in Lebanon. Now, that would be a violation of the RNC resolution requiring candidates to back “military-recommended troop surges” in the Middle East. And in 1981, Reagan condemned Israel’s preventive strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor, which doesn’t jibe with the RNC’s demand to “[support] effective action to eliminate th[e] nuclear weapons threat” in North Korea and Iran. Sure, Reagan may have ended the Cold War and all. But would it have been enough to win the Iowa caucuses?

Social Views

Reagan was born in 1911, and his social views were largely in line with midcentury norms. But compared to other conservatives—especially the evangelicals who helped elect him and still dominate the GOP base—his record on social issues while in office was remarkably undogmatic, especially for his time. In 1967, he signed a law in California that legalized millions of abortions. In 1978, he opposed California’s Proposition 6 ballot initiative, which would’ve barred gay men and women from working in public schools, and risked what his advisers predicted would be political suicide in taking to the airwaves to denounce it. Later, Reagan would become the first president to host an openly gay couple overnight at the White House. In 1981, he defied Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders by nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. A moderate, she would go on, along with one of Reagan’s other nominees, Anthony Kennedy, to vote to uphold Roe v. Wade. As Peter Beinart has put it, “Turns out this Reagan guy wasn’t really that Reaganite after all.”

Purity Rating

4/10

GEORGE H.W. BUSH (1989–93)

gop-presidents-george-hw-bush-vl Courtesy the George Bush Presidential library

Fiscal Policy

Regarding money matters, H.W. would be unacceptable to today’s conservatives for the same reason he was unacceptable back in 1992: taxes. Determined to deflate Reagan’s ballooning deficits and restore some fiscal sanity to Washington—he’d once called Reagan’s supply-side proposals “voodoo economics”—Bush agreed in 1990 to break a campaign promise (“Read my lips: no new taxes”) and accept some tax increases to accompany his preferred spending cuts. The plan would’ve slashed the deficit by $500 billion over the next five years, but the GOP wasn’t in a cooperative mood, and it was defeated in Congress. Nonetheless, Bush’s final budget increased the marginal tax rate, phased out exemptions for high-income taxpayers, and kept the capital-gains tax in place—moves that angered conservatives then and would still anger them today. What’s more, Bush also wound up bailing out the savings-and-loan industry with $126 billion in taxpayer money, which directly contradicts the “[must] oppose bills like Obama’s stimulus” section of the RNC’s purity test. Strike one, strike two.

Domestic Policy

Forced to contend with a Democratic Congress, Bush wasn’t particularly ambitious on the domestic front; he once admitted, in fact, that he thought foreign affairs were more “fun.” But he did on several occasions seek to expand the size and scope of government in ways that would probably alienate conservatives now inclined to attack Obama for even the most minor domestic proposal. Bush increased welfare, for instance, and provided additional benefits to jobless workers. He worked to raise federal spending on education, child care, and the national highway system. He reauthorized the Clean Air Act and even signed the Immigration Act of 1990, a law that increased legal immigration to the U.S. by 40 percent and would do little to endear him to the far right’s anti-immigrant voices. And while the RNC’s purity test says that real Republicans must support “market-based energy reforms by opposing cap-and-trade legislation,” Bush actually pushed for and passed a cap-and-trade system to staunch acid rain, “overrul[ing] his advisers’ recommendation of an eight million-ton cut in annual acid rain emissions in favor of the ten million-ton cut advocated by environmentalists.” What’s that now? Strike four? Strike five?

Foreign Policy

Back in the early 1990s, Bush’s foreign policy was relatively uncontroversial among conservatives: his negotiations with Gorbachev were successful, and his removal of Noriega in Panama was widely praised. But it’s hard to imagine that Bush’s approach to Iraq—wait to assemble a multilateral coalition, withdraw before deposing Saddam Hussein—would strike today’s post-Dubya Republicans as anything but “wimpy.” After all, this is a party that’s urging its candidates to support “military-recommended troop surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan and “effective [read: military] action” against Iran and North Korea. Strike six.

Social Views

Formerly pro-choice, Bush reversed course in 1980 and was elected on three national Republican tickets. But a similar flip-flop today would probably kill Poppy with hard-core conservatives (see: Romney, Mitt). What’s worse, Bush Sr. appointed David Souter to the Supreme Court without knowing his stance on abortion; staffers had assured him that the pick would be a “home run” for conservatives. But Souter—like a number of previous Republican appointees—wound up voting to uphold Roe v. Wade and siding, in general, with the liberal wing of the court. Strike seven. Suppose that means he’s out.

Purity Rating

5/10

GEORGE W. BUSH (2001–09)

gop-presidents-george-w-bush-wide Ron Sachs / CNP-Sygma-Corbis

Fiscal Policy

During his first term, Bush Jr. was widely seen as the most conservative president in U.S. history. After all, his tax cuts were even larger than Reagan’s. The problem, of course, was that his government and his deficits were larger as well. During his eight years in office, Bush transformed surpluses equal to 2.5 percent of GDP into deficits equal to 3 percent of GDP—a $4 trillion hit on the country’s balance sheet. All told, by the end of Bush’s term, the national debt stood at $11.3 trillion—more than double what it was when he took office. It’s tough to see how a party that now professes to support “smaller government, smaller national debt, [and] lower deficits” could possibly back him if he were running for office today.

Domestic Policy

On the domestic front, Bush directly violated two major principles of the RNC’s purity test—and almost violated a third. First, by pushing an unfunded $7 trillion Medicare drug-benefit program through Congress, he further grew a health-care system (i.e., Medicare) that’s far less “market-based” and far more “government-run” than anything Obama ever proposed; in fact, Medicare Part D has been called “the greatest expansion in America’s welfare state in forty years.” Second, he offered illegal immigrants what conservatives like to call “amnesty”—that is, a path to citizenship—with his failed campaign for comprehensive immigration reform back in 2005. Finally, recent reports have revealed that Bush actually supported a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, a message that was dulled by White House conservatives at the time but still managed to surface in a few contemporaneous news accounts.

Foreign Policy

Bush’s aggressive foreign policy would likely still stand him in good stead with conservatives circa 2010. But it’s worth remembering that Bush moderated his approach to international affairs greatly during his second term, and by 2008, his Iran and North Korea policies in particular probably had more in common with Barack Obama’s than with the “effective action” urged by the RNC. As NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zakaria reported at the time: “Disgruntled conservative hard-liners have been dismayed by the administration’s policy in many areas ... John Bolton, formerly Bush’s U.N. ambassador and a superhawk, publicly makes the case for betrayal ... Bolton fumed sarcastically on television that the State Department was obviously ‘doing its best to ensure a smooth transition to the Obama administration.’ (Obama has long advocated American negotiations with Tehran.) He described Bush’s handling of North Korea as a capitulation, comparing him to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.” Ouch.

Social Views

No wiggle room here. On social issues, Bush is probably the only Republican president of the past 50 years who would pass muster with today’s conservative base.

Purity Rating

4/10

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