Jeb Bush has rekindled one of the dumber political talking points of recent years by saying that Reagan couldn’t get nominated today. While I think it’s perfectly legitimate to talk about what Reagan believed and how things have evolved since he was president, the way this topic is generally used is to say that today’s Republicans are too extreme blah blah blah.
Too little attention is paid to the basic fact that Reagan was a man of his times and the times have changed. For instance, much of the GOP’s “extreme” opposition to tax increases stems from lessons learned from Reagan’s experience. Democrats promised to cut spending if Reagan raised taxes. They didn’t cut spending. Reality-based Republicans don’t want to repeat that mistake. Likewise, Reagan agreed to amnesty for illegal immigrants in 1986. Rather than be a one-time deal, it proved to be an incentive for more illegal immigration. And so on. The upshot of so much of the “Reagan was too reasonable for today’s GOP” blather assumes that Reagan wouldn’t have learned from what turned out to be mistakes — and that today’s Republicans shouldn’t either.
If you want to freeze presidents in amber and hold them against today’s political realities, virtually no former president could win their respective party’s primaries today. FDR was adamantly opposed to public-sector unionism. How would that work for him in today’s Democratic Party? John F. Kennedy was a foreign-policy hawk who didn’t care much about civil rights and believed in cutting taxes to stimulate the economy. Would he win a Democratic primary? Times change and politicians change with them. I have few doubts that given Reagan’s principles and the political realities of today, he’d be a mainstream conservative with deep sympathies for the Tea Party. But you can’t blow up the space-time continuum, and if Reagan were alive today, he couldn’t win the GOP nomination — not because he’d be too liberal but because he’d be 101 years old.