Sunday, November 29, 2009

Today's GOP Inadvertently Anti-Reagan

The Republican National Committee has proposed a "Resolution on Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates" on which it has asked members to comment. These "principles" are the following:

1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership


The RNC would, if the Resolution is adopted, withhold financial assistance and endorsement from candidates who deviate from three or more of the points.

It is difficult to project from one era to the next. Cap and trade and card check legislation were not proposed during the Reagan era, and the Defense of Marriage Act was not enacted until the Clinton presidency. North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan presented challenges of a different sort.

Admittedly, President Reagan had no interest in health care, workers' rights, and stemming gun violence, and was anti-abortion rights. Remember, though, that the RNC's criteria for support is adherence to at leave seven(7) of their ten(10) edicts.

That brings us first to the national debt, deficits, and lower taxes. As this conservative libertarian (forgive the attribution) points out, federal spending as a percentage national income was higher in the last quarter of 1988 than at the end of the Carter Administration. Further, the national debt rose under President Reagan from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion. (For a pictorial representation of debt increases from President to President, see this liberal blog for a fine chart.) The budget deficit, 2.7% of gross domestic product during President Carter's last year, was 3.% of gdp by Mr. Reagan's last year. And the legendary tax-cutter from Dixon, Illinois enacted in 1992 what was then the largest tax increase in American history.

We don't know whether Mr. Reagan would have supported "military-recommended troop surges" in Iraq and Afghanistan and agressive containment of Iran and North Korea, presumably in contrast to President Obama's pragmatic approach. But we do know that, like our current president, President Reagan adopted a pragmatic, rather than ideological, approach to foreign policy. Romesh Ratnesar recently explained in Time Magazine (emphasis mine) that

....Reagan's role in bringing about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful end of the Cold War remains exaggerated, manipulated and misunderstood. To many of his conservative admirers, the challenge to Gorbachev in Berlin epitomized the toughness that made Reagan great: by refusing to compromise his core principles, he defeated communism and won the Cold War. But the truth is that Reagan was more adaptable, politically shrewd and open to compromise than either his champions or his critics prefer to admit. He may have called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," but he was not above negotiating with it. While others saw the enmity between the superpowers as immutable, he insisted that change was possible. And though today he is revered by foreign policy hawks, Reagan's greatest successes were achieved not through the use of force but by persuasion, dialogue and diplomacy.

Christian Caryl, in foreignpolicy.com, strikes the same theme, observing

If anything, it was Reagan's willingness, throughout most of his second term, to meet Gorbachev halfway that helped the Soviet leader back away from the use of force -- an achievement that led British journalist Victor Sebestyen to dub Reagan "America's Leading Dove."

Argue if you wish that President Reagan's heart, like that of modern-day Republicans, was with tax cuts for the wealthy and that "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" was more than great theatre. But there is no question that he longed for the "legal immigration and assimilation into American society" for people from other lands and hardly fought "amnesty for illegal immigrants." In a 2006 op-ed in The New York Times, Reagan's Attorney General, Edwin Meese, asserted

President Reagan called this what it was: amnesty. Indeed, look up the term 'amnesty' in Black's Law Dictionary, and you'll find it says, 'the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented aliens already in the country.

This probably did not meet the dictionary definition of amnesty. Nevertheless, as Meese argued

Note that this path to citizenship was not automatic. Indeed, the legislation stipulated several conditions: immigrants had to pay application fees, learn to speak English, understand American civics, pass a medical exam and register for military selective service. Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors were ineligible. Sound familiar? These are pretty much the same provisions included in the new Senate proposal and cited by its supporters as proof that they have eschewed amnesty in favor of earned citizenship.

So on immigration, the majority of the Democratic Party, which the GOP slams in its "Resolutions," wants to make the same mistake do the same thing as President Reagan did. This Democratic President, who admires President Reagan, is pursuing a pragmatic course in foreign policy, as did our 40th President; and Democrats, faced with a recession, are unavoidably running up the debt. They may not believe, as Ronald Reagan reportedly did, that "budget deficits don't matter"- but they are being faithful to the Reagan legacy.

In many ways, President Reagan was a conservative, but clearly not the hard-core ideologue the modern Repub Party, which is pretending to be his ideological heir, is. To look at its philosophical forebear, the GOP need look no further back than to the previous president, George W. Bush. A remarkably complete, conservative, failure.

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