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Would Reagan Be Nominated Today?

The Gipper was more conservative than media claims would suggest.
1/21/1988 President Reagan meeting with William F Buckley in oval office

All of the Republican presidential candidates compare themselves to Ronald Reagan. But almost every media outlet from the mainstream to the blogosphere predicts that Reagan would not even be able to win the Republican nomination if he were running for president today.

The Washington Post highlighted a study from the liberal Center for American Progress claiming to show how Reagan’s policy positions differed from those of today’s Republicans. He raised taxes 11 times, including on the rich; increased government size and spending; signed immigration reform legislation including a path to citizenship; advocated the Brady gun control law; agreed to a treaty on climate; signed a treaty to reduce nuclear arms with the Soviet Union; and took many other positions that would not pass muster with the right today. Back when he was governor of California, he even supported abortion.

Former Reagan appointee Bruce Bartlett took Reagan’s support for these positions as justifying abandoning today’s Republican Party altogether, claiming the real Reagan:

was not a radical who made extravagant claims or sought to destroy government, as most Republicans appear willing to do today. He believed in conservative governance and getting things done, and if bending on principle was necessary, then so be it. I think Republicans would be better off emulating the real Ronald Reagan and less demanding rigid adherence to unachievable principles.

There obviously is some truth to these claims. But they tend to ignore the fact that many of these differences were not positions Reagan supported. Instead, they were forced upon him by more moderate Republican and Democratic Congresses as compromises to obtain something he considered more important. Any Republican who might become president next year will be subject to similar constraints no matter what they say, or even think, today.

In fact, Reagan clearly did not support higher taxes or more domestic spending and would not consider making them part of his platform. He did raise them as part of much larger budget bills to obtain other goals. His largest increase was supposed to result in two dollars of reduced spending for every dollar of increased taxes. He later said it was the worst mistake he made as president. In fact, by the appropriate measure called Budget Authority, Reagan did reduce nondefense discretionary spending by almost 10 percent over his two terms. There is no ideological gap with today’s Republicans on what they desire regarding spending and taxes.

On guns, Reagan was an avid firearms supporter and even carried his own weapon once on a trip to the Soviet Union. He merely supported a waiting period for arms purchases, which is hardly gun control. He supported a climate treaty regarding world ozone levels but it only eliminated a few easily substitutable chemicals, nothing like reducing energy consumption. His conversion from his earlier abortion views was dramatic. On the other hand, Reagan did differ on foreign policy and immigration compared to today’s candidates, as Reagan was indeed less interventionist on foreign policy and more liberal on immigration than most of today’s Republican candidates.

Immigration was very important to Ronald Reagan. He saw the U.S. as a nation of immigrants including him and his family. He actually used the idea of a North American accord between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. as a major proposal in announcing his 1976 presidential candidacy and positioned his 1984 campaign kick-off across from the Statue of Liberty noting her “golden door” open to immigrants. Yet he was also concerned about abuses resulting from the 1965 immigration act, especially chain-migration (where endless non-nuclear family members of one legalized person can become citizens too). Reagan actually supported Teddy Kennedy’s amnesty immigration bill in 1986 as a means to control those abuses. He was later chagrined when the enforcement aspects of the bill proved ineffective.

On foreign policy Reagan was clear about his anticommunism and supported an active role in world affairs. He described the U.S. Cold War with the Soviet Union as “we win, they lose.” He called the USSR evil. While he cut domestic spending, he increased defense spending dramatically. On the other hand, he signed a nuclear reduction treaty with the Soviets that led to the destruction of 2,692 nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, the largest reduction ever. He supported a large defense but hoped that made it less necessary to commit troops. Margaret Thatcher said he won the Cold War but added “without firing a shot.” A study at the Naval Historical Center shows Reagan committed fewer U.S. ground troops abroad than any recent president other than Jimmy Carter. As Martin and Annelise Anderson demonstrate, peace and nuclear arms control were lifetime passions of the former president.

How do these views compare to those of today’s presidential candidates? The nonpartisan CROWDPAC website has created an empirical measure of issue positions and group support to compare today’s candidates in a more objective manner. Fortunately, it calculated a Reagan score too. The measures can be faulted but seem unbiased, supporting its mission to put data in citizen hands and allow them to make informed decisions. They rate on a 20-point scale from the most liberal Bernie Sanders at 8.7 and Hillary Clinton at 6.5 liberal to the zero scale point with George Pataki (0.9) and Donald Trump (1.5), then moving toward the more establishment conservative end with Graham, Santorum, Bush and Kasich with four-point conservative ratings, followed by Rubio, Florina and Huckabee all with 6.0. Reagan earned a 7.0 out toward the conservative end with Ben Carson (8.4), Ted Cruz (9.6) and Rand Paul (10).

Reagan, of course, was the most conservative of the plausible Republicans in the races in 1976 and 1980. On the basis of the scores, if he ran today Reagan would still be toward the right end of the candidate spectrum, perhaps perfectly positioned. All of the Republicans above a score of 6.0 (except Huckabee on economic issues) pretty much agree with Reagan on domestic issues, especially the three at the right end, with Carson most like Reagan on personality. What about on the two policies where Reagan was most different, immigration and defense? Only Rubio and Paul seem close to Reagan on immigration. Only Cruz and Paul seem as pragmatic on foreign policy, with the latter taking the most heat on the issue from the others.

A fair analysis suggests Reagan could be a credible candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 if such a thing were possible. Several candidates have similar scores to Reagan’s, which might leave them well positioned. Yet Trump is least like Reagan and he leads in the polls. Actually the CROWDPAC scoring represents Reagan after he became president. Candidate Reagan would be much further to the right, perhaps all the way with Paul, who is also most like him on the two outlying issues. On the other hand, Paul lags in the polls.

Whether a Reagan or those like him today could win these days is another matter. We shall soon see. While principles may be immutable, situations change. Sixteen years of pretty much ignoring Reaganism has turned the electorate very sour.

Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and one of his campaign strategists.