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The Real Ronald Reagan

The Real Ronald Reagan


Poor Ronald Reagan. He gets tossed around so often. Can’t the guy rest in peace?

This past week, it’s Jeb Bush, who has delighted in injecting himself into the 2012 presidential campaign of late, whether it’s been helpful to the Republican nominee or not. Sounds like Bill Clinton has some competition in the campaign interference department.

Last Monday, Bush told a group of reporters that Reagan, as well as his own father, George H.W. Bush, would have a difficult time earning the nomination of today’s ultraconservative Republican Party.

“Back to my dad’s time and Ronald Reagan’s time — they got a lot of stuff done with a lot of bipartisan support,” Bush said, noting in particular his father’s compromise on taxes as an example of what Poppy Bush and Reagan were once able to achieve.

The assertion, though neither accurate nor novel, still managed to whip the press into a frenzy over the perceived slight against the state of modern conservatism.

Yes, the same conservatives who nominated John (The Moderate) McCain in 2008 and Mitt (The Massachusetts Liberal Obamacare Author) Romney this year would apparently find Reagan too compromising to pass muster today, the story goes.

I’m not sure which Republican Party Jeb is talking about, or why he's talking about it at all, for that matter. But for one thing, our collective memory of Reagan has faded to the point of amnesia. The guy who told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was hardly a mealy-mouthed moderate.

So here’s a brief lesson for those who think Reagan was just Dennis Kucinich with a tan.

He famously campaigned against state-sponsored welfare programs, pledging that he would “send the welfare bums back to work.” That’s the kind of toxic language that got Newt Gingrich in trouble this year, when he called President Obama “the food stamp President.”

Reagan so despised the caprice and power of organized labor that he told an entire fleet of air-traffic controllers to get the hell back to work. If Jeb Bush thinks a union-slaying hard-liner couldn’t get elected today, he should visit Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who managed to do it — twice.

Reagan was so supportive of capital punishment he could make a Texan blush today, once declaring, “Individuals are responsible for their actions. Retribution should be swift and sure for those who prey on the innocent.”

His “War on Drugs” campaign would be considered disturbing by Ron Paul libertarians. And one of his Supreme Court nominees, Robert Bork, was so controversially conservative, he was eviscerated by a Senate committee, giving us the expression “to bork.”

From Reaganomics, espoused by folks like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) today, to his hawkish foreign policy, Reagan would fit in quite nicely with his party in 2012.

But you know who wouldn’t fit in with his own party today? A Democrat named John F. Kennedy. If you subjected one of the left’s most hallowed heroes to the kind of silly time travel experiment that often befalls Reagan, JFK wouldn’t find too many friends on the progressive left today.

The Democrats of 2012 couldn’t very well wage a class war against the 1% and put up someone like Kennedy — a product of Choate, Harvard and Hyannis Port whose family millions and political pedigree make Romney look middle class.

Kennedy supported censuring Joseph McCarthy, signed a balanced-budget pledge and argued for lower tax rates — especially on high-income earners.

He aggressively pledged to rid the world of communism and replace it with American democracy, abandoning detente in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam, Berlin and Latin America, and had us on the brink of nuclear war.

He virtually ignored the civil rights movement to avoid angering Southern Democrats, only addressing the brewing crisis when it became a matter of national security.

Someone like JFK wouldn’t be much of a Democrat today.

But no one talks about the death of the moderate Democrat, even though scores of Blue Dogs have either retired or lost their elections due to an increasing appetite for liberals with more progressive bite. As former Alabama Democratic Rep. Artur Davis recently put it when he announced he was changing his party affiliation:

“I see the Democratic Party taking a step backward. . . . I see more of an embrace of identity politics and group politics, which makes us more fractured than united.”

Which brings us back to compromise, and the idea that Reagan’s ability to work with others would somehow put him outside the conservative sphere today. Compromise is a tactical strategy, not a sign of ideological weakness. Every President does it because he has to.

Let’s not forget that, unlike JFK, Reagan at times had a House and Senate that opposed him, making compromise a necessity, not a choice.

Some of Reagan’s strongest opponents were, in fact, establishment Republicans — guys like Jeb Bush’s dad, who called Reagan’s fiscal policies “voodoo economics.”

If Reagan were alive today, he would probably find that some things have changed. But the party he loved and the causes he cared so deeply about are still here, still very much a part of the conservative movement. If Jeb Bush thinks otherwise, maybe he should switch parties.

This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News. 

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