The last, best hope to re-Rea­ganize the GOP

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY HENRY OLSEN

Mon­day would have been Ron­ald Rea­gan’s 106th birth­day. Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion has caused many ob­servers to be­moan Rea­gan’s sup­pos­edly wan­ing in­flu­ence on to­day’s Repub­li­can Party. But these peo­ple start from the same flawed as­sump­tion, that Trump’s elec­tion means the United States and Repub­li­cans have re­jected Rea­gan’s legacy.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. In fact, Trump’s elec­tion does not rep­re­sent the de-Rea­gani­za­tion of the Repub­li­can Party; it presents Repub­li­cans with their last, best hope to re-Rea­ganize it.

This flawed com­mon wis­dom flows from a flawed un­der­stand­ing of Rea­gan’s phi­los­o­phy that ac­cepts the myth that Rea­gan was an anti-gov­ern­ment ide­o­logue. But to para­phrase Rea­gan him­self, it’s not that the com­mon wis­dom is wrong, it’s that so much of what it knows just isn’t so.

Rea­gan’s con­ser­vatism was not a more at­trac­tive ver­sion of Barry Gold­wa­ter’s anti-statist ide­ol­ogy. From the mo­ment Rea­gan started speak­ing out as a con­ser­va­tive in the late 1950s, he en­dorsed an ac­tive role for gov­ern­ment. He be­lieved that gov­ern­ment should care for those who could not care for them­selves, build pub­lic hous­ing for the poor and ex­pand pub­lic univer­si­ties. Where Gold­wa­ter at­tacked Repub­li­can Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower and Vice Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon for sup­port­ing Franklin Roo­sevelt’s New Deal, Rea­gan en­thu­si­as­ti­cally backed both men in their pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns.

Rea­gan’s con­ser­vatism even sup­ported the idea of univer­sal health cov­er­age. He op­posed Medi­care only be­cause he felt it un­nec­es­sary in light of an­other fed­eral bill, the Kerr-Mills Act. That long-for­got­ten pro­gram gave fed­eral funds to states to con­struct pro­grams that paid health-care bills for poor se­niors. He be­lieved deeply, as he said in 1962, that “any per­son in the United States who re­quires med­i­cal at­ten­tion and can­not pro­vide for him­self should have it pro­vided for him.”

Rea­gan did not shrink from en­dors­ing gov­ern­ment ac­tion when needed as gov­er­nor or as pres­i­dent. He raised the gas tax in 1983 to fund road con­struc­tion and re­pair. He also im­posed sanc­tions on Ja­panese in­dus­tries and com­pa­nies for what he be­lieved were un­fair trade prac­tices even as he sought to ex­tend free-trade agree­ments through­out the world.

Even Rea­gan’s sup­port for im­mi­gra­tion was lim­ited by a be­lief in pro­tect­ing U.S. work­ers. He sup­ported tak­ing in gen­uine refugees flee­ing com­mu­nism or dic­ta­tors, but he op­posed open bor­ders. He wrote one cor­re­spon­dent in 1981 that he fa­vored im­mi­gra­tion quo­tas be­cause “there is no way that we could, with­out limit, take all who want to come here sim­ply for the op­por­tu­nity this coun­try of­fers.”

Each of these po­si­tions has a clear ana­logue in Trump’s early acts or state­ments. Trump’s po­si­tion that every­one should have some sort of health in­sur­ance finds its coun­ter­part in Rea­gan’s long­ex­pressed be­liefs. Trump’s be­lief in build­ing more pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture could be funded by a gas tax hike just like Rea­gan’s was. His be­lief that free trade should be fair trade was Rea­gan’s, and his be­lief that im­mi­gra­tion con­trols to pro­tect U.S. work­ers are just also was Rea­gan’s.

That’s not to say Rea­gan would have agreed with ev­ery­thing Trump says or does. But the over­lap in their views on these is­sues stems from a broader over­lap in phi­los­o­phy. Trump seems to be­lieve the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should act force­fully to pro­tect the in­ter­est of the U.S. worker. Rea­gan’s phi­los­o­phy was broader and deeper, but it stemmed from the same source: that en­hance­ment of the life, dig­nity and free­dom of the or­di­nary Amer­i­can was the proper role for the gov­ern­ment.

Repub­li­cans have too of­ten for­got­ten this prin­ci­ple in the years since Rea­gan’s pres­i­dency. They have tended to shy away from force­ful ac­tion to help or­di­nary Amer­i­cans in lim­ited cir­cum­stances in fa­vor of a more purist free-mar­ket ide­ol­ogy that can over­look the gen­uine suf­fer­ing mar­kets can cre­ate. Too of­ten the per­son who loses his or her fac­tory job has been treated as col­lat­eral dam­age in the march to­ward glob­al­iza­tion. Rea­gan never be­lieved gov­ern­ment alone or even pri­mar­ily was the so­lu­tion, but he also didn’t be­lieve it was never the an­swer. Repub­li­cans have lost that be­lief, and with it have lost the pres­i­dency for most of the post-Rea­gan era.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that Trump’s big­gest pop­u­lar vote gains over prior Repub­li­cans came where Rea­gan also ex­celled. Through­out the Mid­west, the ar­eas where Rea­gan in 1980 sur­passed Ger­ald Ford in 1976 are usu­ally the same places where Trump over­per­formed Mitt Rom­ney. North­ern and western Wis­con­sin, the au­to­mo­bile-build­ing and ru­ral re­gions of Michi­gan, in­dus­trial Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia – many of those who are to­day’s Trump Democrats were Rea­gan Democrats first.

A re-Rea­ganized Repub­li­can Party would, like Rea­gan, meld this be­lief in lim­ited but force­ful gov­ern­ment ac­tion with the tra­di­tional be­lief in the pri­vate sec­tor. Like Rea­gan, it would re­duce bur­dens on pri­vate eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity while en­sur­ing that the gov­ern­ment did not stand idly by when av­er­age Amer­i­cans were hurt. It would fi­nally bring into be­ing that “New Repub­li­can Party” Rea­gan spoke of in 1977, a party that would give “work­ing men and women of this coun­try . . . a say in what goes on in the party.”

That New Repub­li­can Party would fi­nally make the GOP some­thing it has not been since be­fore the Great De­pres­sion: Amer­ica’s ma­jor­ity party. And giv­ing birth to that party would be the best birth­day present the GOP could pos­si­bly give to the Gip­per. The writer is a se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter. His book “Ron­ald Rea­gan: New Deal Repub­li­can” is sched­uled to be pub­lished in June.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.