Was Rea­gan a Demo­crat in dis­guise?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Avik Roy, pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for Re­search on Equal Op­por­tu­nity, served as a pol­icy ad­viser to Mitt Rom­ney, Rick Perry and Marco Ru­bio.

Sen. Barack Obama, cam­paign­ing in Ne­vada in early 2008, ex­pressed his pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions in an eye­browrais­ing way: by pro­fess­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for Ron­ald Rea­gan. “Rea­gan changed the tra­jec­tory of Amer­ica in a way that Richard Nixon did not and a way that Bill Clin­ton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent path.” It gave Democrats the hee­bie-jee­bies to think that their nom­i­nee might see the great­est con­ser­va­tive politi­cian of the 20th cen­tury as his model.

But what if Obama — and ev­ery­one else — is wrong? What if Rea­gan, far from be­ing a trans­for­ma­tional po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, was merely con­tin­u­ing the ideas and poli­cies of the great­est pro­gres­sive politi­cian of the 20th cen­tury?

That’s the the­sis of “The Work­ing Class Repub­li­can,” by Henry Olsen, a se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter. “I grew up as a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can in Ron­ald Rea­gan’s Cal­i­for­nia,” Olsen be­gins, a “diehard” Rea­gan­ite who saw the Gip­per as the na­tion’s right-wing standard-bearer. But in the Obama years, as Olsen be­gan re­view­ing Rea­gan’s speeches and writ­ings, “what I found shocked me. Ev­ery­thing I had been told about Rea­gan’s phi­los­o­phy, by the Right and the Left, had been wrong.”

Rea­gan, in Olsen’s telling, was to his last breath an FDR Demo­crat in GOP cloth­ing. In­deed, Olsen con­tends, Franklin Roo­sevelt and Rea­gan were both ar­dent anti-com­mu­nists who sup­ported a lim­ited but sig­nif­i­cant role for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene on be­half of the com­mon man.

The New Deal dra­mat­i­cally ex­panded the role of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the U.S. econ­omy, but its re­forms were of­ten care­fully cal­i­brated to pro­vide so­cial in­sur­ance to the work­ing poor, in ways that frus­trated the left in the years be­tween the New Deal and Lyn­don John­son’s Great So­ci­ety.

In ef­fect, while Olsen’s book fo­cuses on the life of Rea­gan from the 1930s to the 1980s, it makes two re­vi­sion­ist ar­gu­ments: first, that Rea­gan was much less con­ser­va­tive than pre­vi­ously un­der­stood; and se­cond, that Roo­sevelt was much more con­ser­va­tive than pre­vi­ously un­der­stood.

Most provoca­tively, Olsen wants to­day’s GOP to em­brace the legacy of FDR, to “reap­ply the car­di­nal prin­ci­ple en­shrined in the New Deal, that gov­ern­ment has a lim­ited but strong role to play in help­ing the av­er­age per­son achieve his or her dreams.”

Pres­i­dent Trump’s ap­peal, Olsen says, is a direct re­sult of the fact that “the core thrust of [Trump’s] ar­gu­ment re­gard­ing gov­ern­ment’s ul­ti­mate pur­pose bears poignant sim­i­lar­i­ties to Rea­gan’s New Deal con­ser­vatism.”

Olsen is at his most ef­fec­tive when he con­trasts the anti-gov­ern­ment ab­so­lutism of Barry Gold­wa­ter with the more nu­anced rhetoric of Rea­gan. It was no ac­ci­dent, Olsen im­plies, that Gold­wa­ter won six states in the 1964 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, while Rea­gan won 49 in 1984.

Take the ex­am­ple of health care. Most read­ers of Olsen’s book will be sur­prised to learn that Rea­gan em­braced uni­ver­sal cov­er­age. In “A Time for Choos­ing” — Rea­gan’s cel­e­brated con­ser­va­tive man­i­festo de­liv­ered at Gold­wa­ter’s 1964 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion — Rea­gan de­clared, “No one in this coun­try should be de­nied med­i­cal care for lack of funds.” In a speech to the Phoenix Cham­ber of Com­merce — in Gold­wa­ter’s back­yard — Rea­gan said, “Any per­son in the United States who re­quires med­i­cal at­ten­tion and can­not pro­vide for him­self should have it pro­vided for him.”

While Rea­gan op­posed “com­pul­sory health in­sur­ance through a gov­ern­ment bureau for peo­ple who don’t need it or who have . . . even a few mil­lion dol­lars tucked away,” he cham­pi­oned the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, a law in­tro­duced by two Democrats that gave fed­eral money to states with which to pro­vide med­i­cal care for the el­derly in need. Rea­gan said that he was “in fa­vor of this bill — and if the money isn’t enough, I think we should put up more.”

Gold­wa­ter, on the other hand, brimmed with con­tempt for bills like Kerr-Mills, call­ing them in “The Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive” a sin­is­ter “mix­ture of black­mail and bribery.”

Olsen fails to ad­dress an ob­vi­ous re­join­der to his ar­gu­ment: that the same poli­cies, in dif­fer­ent eras, can rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions for the coun­try. In 1932, a politi­cian ar­gu­ing for the New Deal was out­landishly left wing; in 1980, a politi­cian ar­gu­ing for a re­ver­sion to the New Deal was out­landishly right wing.

Olsen is con­fus­ing when he tries to draw pol­icy lessons for to­day’s Repub­li­cans from Rea­gan’s phi­los­o­phy. He slams House Speaker Paul Ryan’s ap­proach to en­ti­tle­ment re­form, even though it is en­tirely con­sis­tent with Rea­gan’s be­lief that vol­un­tary pro­grams are su­pe­rior to com­pul­sory ones and that pri­vate busi­nesses are more re­spon­sive to or­di­nary peo­ple than gov­ern­ment bu­reau­crats are. Olsen crit­i­cizes Obama’s sup­port for free­trade agree­ments such as the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, even though Rea­gan was a com­mit­ted free-trader.

There’s one huge dif­fer­ence be­tween FDR and Rea­gan that Olsen en­tirely ig­nores: their ap­peal to African Amer­i­cans. In 1932, Repub­li­can Her­bert Hoover won a ma­jor­ity of blacks. By 1936, Demo­crat FDR had cap­tured 71 per­cent of the black vote. Rea­gan suc­ceeded at ap­peal­ing to the white work­ing class but failed to re­verse the GOP’s de­cline among mi­nori­ties.

There is a strong case that “The Work­ing Class Repub­li­can” tries to solve the wrong prob­lem. The GOP has done quite well with the white work­ing class: in the South and the West for years, and now in the Rust Belt with Trump. But many Repub­li­can vot­ers re­sent the grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans — equally hard-work­ing — whose an­ces­tors came here from some­where other than Europe. On where the GOP went wrong with mi­nori­ties, and how to win them back, Olsen has al­most noth­ing to say.

But he cap­tures, in a way few Rea­gan bi­og­ra­phers have, the Gip­per’s elo­quent calls for Wash­ing­ton to ac­tively take the side of those who strug­gle in the modern econ­omy. To­day’s Repub­li­cans — the ones who pep­per their speeches with the name “Rea­gan” — would be well-served to re­flect on Olsen’s in­sights.


Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan thought the gov­ern­ment should help Amer­i­cans who strug­gled eco­nom­i­cally, Henry Olsen writes.

THE WORK­ING CLASS REPUB­LI­CAN Ron­ald Rea­gan and the Re­turn of Blue Col­lar Con­ser­vatism By Henry Olsen Broad­side. 345 pp. $27.99

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