Last year, a Gallup Poll asked Americans which US president they regarded as the greatest. Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, was atop the list with 19% of those polled calling him the greatest president America has ever seen, a full 5% points above Abraham Lincoln. Reagan’s honorific place in the minds of many Americans is indisputable, and seems to only be waxing with time. Often invoked as the patron saint of conservatives, Reagan has been held as the poster boy of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party alike. Interestingly, however, times have changed greatly since 1988, when Reagan completed his second term as President, with both political parties becoming more polarized than they have been since The Restoration. To be sure, the modern Republican Party has different ideological demands of its presidential candidates than in 1980, when Reagan secured the Republican nomination. Though Mitt Romney has already secured the 2012 Republican nomination for President, it’s worth considering how Ronald Reagan would fare in the present iteration of his party.
Indeed, Reagan is largely considered one of the more conservative presidents in our nation’s history. His policies included slashing government regulation of the private sector, increasing military spending, slowing the rate at which government grew, and several steep tax cuts. The benefits reaped during the Reagan years were tangible: the faltering U.S. economy recovered after a stubborn recession, unemployment dropped from 7.6% in 1980 to 5.5% in 1988, and U.S.-Soviet relations took a turn, a major factor in the end of the Cold War just a few years later. It is these very accomplishments that have earned Reagan an enduring legacy in the minds of the Tea Party, the broader Republican Party, and indeed the American population as a whole.
But would the modern GOP have agreed with all of the policies Reagan employed to reach these goals? The answer is, without a doubt, no. While he was a proponent of assuring the military superiority of the United States, he had a few “dove-like” tendencies as well. No one understood the dangers of the Cold War better than Reagan, and he took the challenge of bringing stability to the situation very seriously. One method he hoped to use to bring this stability was complete nuclear disarmament. Reagan’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons was obviously never accomplished, but a much more moderate disarmament actually did occur between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. How would modern Republicans feel about a candidate who preached U.S. disarmament as a strategy to achieve peace? To answer this, one need go no further than 2010, when President Obama faced harsh criticism from the GOP for signing a treaty with Russia that ushered in a new round of disarmament. Republican critics were concerned with the message that this would send to nations like Iran, who may someday serve as a nuclear threat. Surely, Reagan would find little support within the modern GOP for his disarmament aspirations.
Reagan’s aggressive tax cuts are largely regarded as some of Reagan’s most celebrated accomplishments. His Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 and Tax Reform Act of 1986 cut individual and corporate tax rates significantly (one of the main reasons the Tea Party is so enamored with him). At the same time, however, Reagan also committed what has become an un-forgivable sin amongst Republicans: he raised taxes. And it didn’t just happen once; Reagan raised taxes eleven different times during his time as President. While these tax increases did not fully wipe out the cuts he made, they did “…eat up about half of it.” Furthermore, some of his tax increases were used to pay for Social Security and Medicare, two programs the GOP remains at least somewhat opposed to in the present day. What all of this shows is that Rea-gan was not just a tax-slashing conservative. Rather, his belief in the necessity of occasional tax increases to pay for government services and to decrease the national debt made him, at least by today’s standards, relatively moderate. This belief, of course, would make him virtually unelectable within the Republican Party. If the national debt talks from last year have taught us anything, it is that Republicans do not take kindly to the idea of tax increases. Modern Republicans are infinitely more likely to cut spending to Social Security than to raise taxes to continue to fund it. Any candidate proposing Reagan’s philosophy would find little support within the party.
While Reagan was by and large an extremely conservative President, his few moderate stances were on issues that have become central to the Republican Party. In a present-day debate within his own party, Reagan would be mercilessly attacked for his disarmament efforts and his multiple tax increases. Reagan himself would not be conservative enough to satisfy the modern GOP, leaving the question: if their own poster boy fails to meet Republican criteria, who can?
Craft, Joe. “Fulfilling Reagan’s Dream: Nuclear Disarmament.” Atlantic Council. www.acus.org/new_atlanticist/fulfilling-reagan%E2%80%99s-dream-nuclear-disarmament (accessed November 11, 2011).
“Economic Policy.” Reagan Foundation. http://www.reaganfoundation.org/economic-policy.aspx (accessed November 11, 2011).
Montopoll, Brian. “Ronald Reagan Myth Doesn’t Square with Reality.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20030729-503544.html (accessed November 11, 2011).
Newport, Frank. “Americans Say Reagan Is the Greatest U.S. President .” Gallup. http://www.gallup.com/poll/146183/americans-say-reagan-greatest-president.aspx (accessed November 11, 2011).
This article was originally written by Mark Cherry in the Spring of 2012.