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NOVEMBER 12, 2010 3:26AM

GOP Running On the Myth of "Reagan Conservatism."

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There are three certainties in life:  Death, taxes, and every single GOP presidential aspirant will identify themselves as a "Reagan Conservative." 

Ronald Reagan, the unparalleled icon of today's conservative movement, achieved his God-like status in spite of pragmatic, moderate policy decisions that didn't always live up to his soaring, right wing speeches.

From his days in Hollywood, President Reagan knew that image and perception always trumped actual results, so as long as he was able to deliver the conservatives a well-crafted speech, he could convince them, and himself, that he was a true believer in their cause. 

Perhaps Mr. Reagan found it much easier to campaign as a conservative than to govern like one, or maybe he was just another ambitious politician, willing to say or do anything to get elected.

Either way, he flip-flopped on enough key decisions to make one wonder why he is so revered by today's Republican leaders, such as Senator John Thune (R-SD).

 *    *    *    *

Senator Thune is one of many 2012 presidential hopefuls who will work very hard to send President Obama packing to Chicago.  If you haven't heard of him yet, or have heard very little, stay tuned. 

He may be flying somewhat under the radar screen now but so was Barack Obama in 2006. (Remember the inevitably of President Hillary Clinton)?


Senator John Thune.  Can he harness the myth of Ronald Reagan?

Thune is a quietly formidable candidate who doesn't lug around the baggage of a Sarah Palin (nuts), Mike Huckabee (nuts), Newt Gingrich (nuts), or Mitt Romney (Mormon)... except for one pesky little item:  He voted for the T.A.R.P. Act in 2008 and he will be slammed for that vote by opportunistic politicians, like the above-mentioned, who were lucky enough not to be forced to cast that unpopular but necessary vote.

Today on Fox News, Senator Thune was interviewed by Bret Baier and he gave us a hint as to how he will position himself in the crowded GOP field.

BAIER: If you run, would you see yourself as an establishment candidate?

THUNE: [laughing] The word establishment is not a good word. I am a Reaganesque conservative."

*    *    *    *
Running as a Reagan Conservative will not separate Senator Thune from the field one iota. They will all claim the mantle of the 40th President and his legendary yet fluid conservative principles.
The bottom line is that the conservative legacy of Ronald Reagan is largely a myth but that won't stop people like John Thune from exploiting the fact that if you say something loud enough and often enough, people will start to believe that it's true.  (Barack Obama was born in Kenya... Glenn Beck is right... Honest Officer, I was just trying to help that little sheep over the fence).
Consider the following disparities between Reagan's rhetoric and his ultimate decisions.
Choice of George H.W. Bush as his running mate.

The choice of a running mate is the first presidential decision that a winning candidate makes. 

In 1980, then candidate Reagan wanted to select Jack Kemp, a passionate believer in tax cuts and a favorite of the up and coming neoconservative movement.  Connecticut blue-blood George H.W. Bush, a vocal defender of abortion rights and a critic of Reagan's "voodoo economics" wasn't Reagan's second or even third choice for the VP slot.

Bush's strength was that he won the Iowa primary and was a strong runner-up for the nomination.  At the urging of campaign staffers who believed that Kemp (rumored to be gay) would hurt the ticket, Reagan abandoned his conservative principles, swallowed hard, and selected the despised Bush.  In his first opportunity to display his conservative bona fides, Reagan punted.

Pro-abortion Supreme Court appointments.

Six months into his first term Reagan was given the chance to build up his conservative legacy when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart announced his retirement.

Reagan, who at a low point in his race with President Carter promised that he would choose the first woman Supreme Court Justice, selected the moderate Sandra Day O'Connor.  Anti-abortion groups were livid, fearing, rightfully as it turned out, that Mrs. O'Connor would not vote to overturn Roe vs Wade. 

In 1986 Reagan made amends with the right wing of his party with the selection of Antonin Scalia.  Scalia quickly became, and remains today, the most influential and reliable conservative on the court.

Reagan got another chance in 1987 and selected the ultra-conservative Robert Bork.  Senate Democrats were not about to let Reagan appoint an ideologue like Bork that close to the end of his presidency.  After a contentious hearing, Bork's nomination was defeated.

Reagan then chose Harvard professor and pothead Douglas Ginsburg.  That embarrassing nomination was derailed before it even became official so Reagan finally settled on U.S. Appeals Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. 

Kennedy had a long history of supporting expanded rights of privacy, gay rights, and preserving a woman's right to choose.  If the selection of Scalia was a home run, picking Kennedy was hitting into a triple play. 

Kennedy and O'Connor were not conservative jurists who changed their stripes after they had the luxury of a lifetime appointment.  They were well-known moderates with a paper trail that should have disqualified them from Republican consideration.

Handed the rare gift of appointing three justices to the Supreme Court, Reagan got it right only once.

The great redistributor of wealth.  

When conservatives excoriate Barack Obama for being a socialistic redistributor of wealth, they conveniently forget to point out that it was okay with them when President Reagan did it.

Reagan lived up to his campaign promise to lower taxes, signing into law the "Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981." The highest tax rate was lowered from 70% to 50% while the lowest rate dropped from 14% to 11%. 

Within a year, when it became apparent that the tax cuts reduced revenue well beyond projections, President Reagan signed the "Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982," which was described by his own economic adviser, Bruce Bartlett, as "the largest peacetime tax increase in the nation's history."

The redistribution of wealth was completed the following year when the "Social Security Reform Act" was passed into law.

The net effect of these three tax bills was a tax reduction for the wealthiest Americans and tax increases on the lower and middle class.  This trifecta completed the largest redistribution of wealth in American history.

When the wealth was redistributed north instead of south, nobody on the right called Reagan a Marxist.

Shrinkage only happened when Reagan went swimming.

During the campaign Reagan ridiculed President Carter's deficits but after he took office he made the Carter deficits look like loose sofa change.  When today's conservatives speak fondly of Reagan's proclivity for smaller government, consider the actual statistics, and not the fond but false memories.

Deficit growth as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

Richard Nixon -5.4%

Gerald Ford -0.9%

Jimmy Carter -1.6%

Ronald Reagan +18.5%

George H.W. Bush +12.2%

Bill Clinton -6.8%

George W. Bush +11.9%

How many times have you heard people say that they vote for Republicans because they are better stewards of the economy?

During Reagan's presidency the federal government added 61,000 employees.  By comparison, during the Clinton administration, the government slashed nearly 400,000 jobs.  (And Clinton accomplished this despite all of those time-consuming office blow jobs).

The blood of 2 million fetuses on Reagan's hands.

When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California he signed a permissive law that legalized abortions. Since that law went into effect more than 2 million abortions (or murders as many like to call them) have taken place in the Golden State.

At first Reagan blamed his own inexperience, stating that had he been in office longer he would have realized that the bill was wrong.  Later he blamed doctors for misinterpreting the bill.  (I'm sure that Sean Hannity would gladly give President Obama a pass on an explanation like that).

President Reagan stated, "Abortion on demand now takes the lives of up to one and a half million unborn children a year. Human life legislation ending this tragedy will someday pass the Congress, and you and I must never rest until it does."

During his eight years in the White House Ronald Reagan didn't introduce a single bill to ban abortion but rumor has it that he did manage to get plenty of rest.

Impotent response to terrorist attack.

On October 23, 1983, two truck bombs struck American and French military facilities, killing 241 American and 58 French soldiers.  The group Islamic Jihad, which would later become Hezbollah, took credit for the bombings.

At the time President Reagan called the action a "despicable act," and promised that the military would stay in Lebanon. Shortly after that we packed up and left.

The socialistic, wimpy French launched an retaliatory attack while "tough guy" Ronald Reagan sat on his hands.  (Wow, I guess real men do eat quiche).

*    *    *    *

Ronald Wilson Reagan, Republican icon, a man who walked on water in the eyes of millions of conservatives even though he raised taxes, exploded the deficits, enabled 2 million abortions in California, expanded existing government agencies, created new ones, doubled the size of the federal government, and tripled Jimmy Carter's deficits. 

Let that sink in for a moment:  Ronald Reagan left the country in much worse shape than Jimmy Carter did.  Until Barack Obama came along Mr. Carter was the conservatives favorite punching bag.  Go figure.

*    *    *    *

John Thune calls himself a Reagan Conservative.  So does Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and every other Republican who plans to seek the presidency in 2012.

They all value sound bites and zingers over leading and governing.  They're much better at flinging poop than they are at cleaning it up.

Ronald Reagan had conservative talking points down to a science, which is why, from his grave, he remains the GOP's best standard bearer.

The person that ends up with the Republican nomination in 2012 will be the one who does the best job of convincing primary voters that Ronald Reagan actually was a great conservative and that they are going to take the baton and finish the race. 

The truth won't really matter... like the actor Ronald Reagan knew, it's all about image.

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Ronnie Rayguns was not a President. President's preside. Ronnie was the buxom wench/spokesmodel on the prow of the Republicans wishful thinking Viking ship that drew them onward as they plundered the New Deal.
He was already stricken with Alzheimers but could still read a cue card/teleprompter.
The R's seethed in the wilderness for forty years hearing "FDR" this and Roosevelt that and it drove them nuts.
Reagan and his ilk caused and presided over the worst recession till W's recession since the Depression.
They are bears not bulls. They devour the pieces 0f the things that they broke.
That's how they live, and it's just what they do.
Good post Roger and there's much more you could have cited about Reagan's dismal legacy. I have to get to the office shortly but will return to flesh out three others: Iran-contra, a global treaty regarding oceans, and a conference in mexico on population.
Reagan had to be the worst president in modern history, yet the right love to use them as their poster boy. What a crock!

Thanks for a great post. I will not only rate it, I will share it!
The best part of the reagan myth is no one can actually live up to the hype. The more the candidates run on it the less likely they are to get elected. Furthermore to at least three generations of voters reagan is just a name from the past. A candidate might as well run as an Eisenhower or Goldwater conservative, the effect would be the same.
Thanks all. It should be interesting to see how this cycle plays out. Much appreciated.
Please OS people, get rid of the spam comments!
The most damning thing that Reagan did was to open the door to the noxious right-wing talking-points political lifestyle that infects our discourse today. He purposely fanned the flames of the culture wars, despite not really acting as a soldier in the Moral Majority army. In his case, sounds bites had more negative impact than actions, long-term.
Sometimes a post comes along that you know you will cherish and refer to again and again.

This is one of those posts.
It probably wont be Philadelphia Mississippi this time. What can be used as a symbolic location for states rights this time? Waycross Georgia, perhaps.
You hit this one out of the park, Roger. You know how I feel about Reagan...he didn't become an actor until he made it to the White House. Excellent post!
What Reagan actually did doesn't matter. What matters to the modern right-wing is what you look like doing it. They decry "Hollywood" while swallowing every stupid image and piece of P.R. being fed them.

Reagan and Bush have one thing in common: they both looked like macho guys molded in the image of a Hollywood hero. And they both increased spending, and ran up deficits. That doesn't matter. Republicans need a Daddy, and Daddy must look tough.
Great post Roger. I knew he sucked ("Hey! Let's fire all the air controllers!") but I've never seen the numbers side by side like this.

I really miss his wonderful speeches in which he cited movie scenes as actual historic events.
I'm not a huge Reagan fan or anything, but he was a good figurehead, and he did have a certain gravitas about him.

Him and Freedman weren't the greatest economic minds, but he seemed to establish a good working relationship with Gorbachev which was important in that moment. I know Dictatorial Communism imploded on itself, but if we wouldn't have had a good relationship with the USSR at the time, it could have gone a lot worse.

Your post was awesome...the comments were typical.
Remember the little booklet, "Reagan's Reign of Error"? The right loved Reagan for being the ultimate political actor, not for his conservative actions or principles. Thanks for this article. Lots of nuggets. R
Perception is reality for those who can't think beyond slogans. I once pointed out what ought to be incontrovertible FACT: John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush all pretended to be cowboys and warriors, but none of them actually was. Despite that FACT, the hoi polloi see all three that way.

Given that last FACT, all Thune needs to do to get elected is wear a cowboy hat. This continual falling for phonies clearly reflects a defect in the American character, and at the risk of flogging my blog, here's why I think it persists:

The Cowboy Way - Unmasking American Myths.
And of course, the absolutely most wonderful thing is -- we get to see the Republicans eat their young 'uns live on F*x for the next two years.
Poorsinner, are you saying that Roger Federer or (gasp) Roger Rabbit is a commie???
I like your quick summary of who reduced the deficit and who increased it. I wonder if the voters know or care. THe outrageous facts do not seem to sink in.
This is what you call a direct hit. And I bet you won't see any of the cable blowhards bring any of this up while they let the GOP phonies dub themselves "Reagan Conservatives."

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Great article. Worthy of the EP.
People have sort of forgot what made Reagan the popular president that he was, and as a result, they tend to rethink his popularity as some kind of conservatism or something along that line. What made Reagan popular was that he came after a presidency that put America at one of its lowest periods. We'd just gone through 444 days of hostage drama with a president (Carter) who felt it was important to tell the truth on what would need to be done to make America stronger (people didn't want to hear that). And along came a man who told Americans they should be proud of being Americans, and people bought it hook, line and sinker. They needed to feel good about themselves, and that's what he did.

Years later, we can argue back and forth about his policies and his economic agenda, but in reality he came along at a dismal time in US history and allowed Americans to feel better about themselves. That's really all he succeeded at doing. Republicans have been trying to reinvent his accomplishments ever since, and that's why no Republican can live up to such expectations; no one ever did what they seem to want to bring us back to.
Bottom line on Reagan is that the truth means nothing to the right. They ignore reality and go on trying to canonize him. The new W. book is evidence that the same thing is coming for him too. Forget the truth and remember the myth. Reagan was a disaster as president he left a legacy of debt that it took Clinton to finally take hold of it. Not happy with the simple truth that we had a growing economy under a Democrat, again we saw the GOP attempt to kill off the Clinton presidency by constant investigations that ended up with a BJ being the worst thing they could pin on him. It worked so well that they seek to run the same game on Obama. No it is just going to be Clinton redux for the next two years with a congress in gridlock and an electorate that will fall hook line and sinker for the lies of the GOP.
Remember 'trickle down economics'. Give tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations and they will use it to create jobs. That sounded suspect to me from the start. Instead the wealthy used the money to takeover their competition, close factories and then move production to third world countries. Which Regan paved the way for with deregulation. A Wall St puppet who would sell anything you put in his hands if the price was right, He hawked cigarettes in the 50s. And don't get me started on that bitch Nancy, filling prisons with dope-smoking young black men.