“What Would Reagan Do?” Is No Longer an Interesting Question


Several of my regular morning reads are linking to a new CAP report about the rightward drift of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan:

Reagan took positions that are anathema to the leaders of today’s Republican Party—advancing sensible immigration reform, supporting pollution control, curbing nuclear arms, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, and advocating gun background checks. As president, Reagan passed immigration reform with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He also passed a landmark treaty on the climate and raised taxes 11 times. He even negotiated with America’s main adversary, the Soviet Union, signing a treaty with the communist nation to reduce nuclear weapons.

This is fair enough, up to a point. I’ve written about it myself, and there’s no question that the GOP has become far more conservative since Reagan’s day.

Still, I think you need to take this with a grain of salt for a couple of reasons. First, Reagan governed in a different era. America was coming off a 15-year period of exceptional liberal progress, so Reagan was dealing with a country that was considerably to the left of today’s. Common sense dictates that if you’re at the top of a mountain, you spend your time figuring out how to make it down to a reachable base camp, not trying to get to the bottom all at once. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want to get to the bottom eventually.

Second, as president he had to figure out how to get things done, and he had to do it in the face of a still-Democratic House. Simple obstruction just wasn’t an option. Reagan had to negotiate compromises whether he liked it or not.

There’s no telling what Reagan would think of today’s Republican Party. Maybe he’d be appalled. Or maybe he’d be thrilled that the movement he started had gone so far. Who knows? He was a product of his time, and it makes no more sense to wonder what he’d think of today’s GOP than to wonder what FDR would think of a Democratic Party that supports gay marriage and carbon taxes. “What Would Reagan Do?” is just no longer an interesting question.