False God: Reagan and the Republican primaries

Whew! Anybody else have whiplash from the Republican presidential primary? Republican voters, desperately throwing themselves into the Anybody But Mitt project, are cycling though candidates like drunk Swatties go through Paces hook ups.

Strong opposition to Romney, who signed health care reform that made Massachusetts the state with the most insured citizens, was clear from the get-go. Wishy washy liberals who use government to help people have no place in a GOP primary.

Romney allergies set off a fierce “I’m not Mitt” race. The GOP at first turned to Michelle Bachmann, who convinced voters that no matter how terrible her severe migraines were, they would never prevent her from being properly homophobic. But Michelle ran into trouble when she tried to explain how the routine HPC vaccine — which prevents cervical cancer — leads to mental retardation.


OK, back to the real race. Next was Rick Perry, the Texas Governor famous for shooting a coyote on his morning jog. Wow, can you imagine what he’d do to Iran? But just as the GOP base finished blushing its way through Perry’s first debate performances (in which he drew vociferous applause for his record use of the death penalty), it discovered that the Governor had allowed the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities. It was as if, in the eyes of the GOP base, the Texas Cowboy’s face melted into the cheery grin of Ted Kennedy.

Now, Herman Cain has taken the lead in the “I’m not Mitt” race. There’s no way to tell how long Cain will last, but, if patterns continue, it won’t be long.

The force driving the primary windmill was evident in last month’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Debating in a space dedicated to Reagan’s legacy with answers framed by the eerily biblical “What would Reagan do?”, the problem of the Republican primary was abundantly clear: the GOP base is comparing the present candidates to a man who never existed. Not even Reagan would win the Republican nomination today if he had to be compared to … well, Reagan.

The Reagan described by today’s GOP is a mighty tax cutter who shrunk government to unleash what he termed “the magic of the marketplace.” On social issues, this principled conservative stood for ‘traditional family values’ — banning abortion and reinstituting school prayer. Oh, and did I mention that he singlehandedly brought the Soviet Union to its knees?

Why shouldn’t today’s candidates be compared to this Conservative Champion? For the same reason I shouldn’t compare prospective love interests to Dominique Francon: the deified Reagan never existed. The real Ronald Reagan raised taxes in seven of his eight years in office, including the largest peace-time tax increase in American history in 1982. For all his anti-government rhetoric, government spending actually increased under Reagan, and the deficit tripled between 1981-89. Reagan accumulated more debt than every president since 1900 combined.

These deficits were necessary to win the Cold War, right? Nonsense. No legitimate social scientist believes this self-serving Reagan-centric narrative today. Insofar as the Soviet Union’s collapse can be explained by military pressures, those tensions can be traced to the USSR overstretching itself in Afghanistan, not attempts to keep up with the U.S. Moreover, the ‘Reagan-did-it’ narrative misses the complexities of Soviet society that, for reasons entirely unrelated to Reagan’s military buildup, crumbled in the late 1980s.

Well, at least Reagan stood for social issues, the GOP base might say. Wrong again. While religious appeals figured prominently in Reagan’s campaign rhetoric, Religious Right leader Paul Wychman recalls that, “Immediately after Reagan was elected, the administration announced that its social agenda would have to be postponed for several years.” Reagan refused to push for either the Human Life Statute of 1981 or the Family Protection Act of 1981, both of which would have outlawed abortion. More interestingly, as Governor of California he signed the most liberal abortion law in the country. Beyond this, I’m particularly interested in what today’s immigration-phobic GOP has to say about the 3M illegal immigrants to whom Reagan granted amnesty in 1986.

So what happened since 1989, when Reagan left office with a moderate approval rating of 53%? In the mid-to-late 1990s, the GOP had no answer to Bill Clinton’s strategic triangulation, which co-opted GOP agenda items like welfare reform and a balanced budget and coincided with robust economic growth. The GOP lacked prominent national leaders — how many of you remember Bob Dole? — and essentially no constructive policy suggestions that Clinton had not already claimed as his own. Clinton’s only flaw seemed to be a deficit of character, epitomized by the Lewinsky affair.

The GOP desperately sought a figurehead around whom the party could unite. Reagan, who withdrew from public life in 1994 after announcing that he suffered from Alzheimer’s, was the perfect option: not only a harbinger of personal likeability to contrast with the weaseling Clinton, but also clearly free from criticism, given his health. Beginning in the late 1990s theGOP built its political image around, and projected its increasingly rightward values upon, a romanticized image of the former President.

So here we are, a primary frozen by nostalgia. I have to say, I feel for these candidates a bit. They already look bad enough on stage next to each other. Why add the false Reagan god to make them look even worse?

Sam is a junior. He can be reached at ssussma1@swarthmore.edu.

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