For several years now, liberals as well as some would-be reformers on the Right, have made a huge deal about the fact that a candidate holding Reagan’s views today would be on the outs with many GOP voters. It seems it’s all new the folks at First Read:
*** Would Reagan Have Passed Today’s Conservative Litmus Test? Evan Thomas’ piece on Palin in the latest issue of Newsweek raises this provocative question, especially for conservatives who are targeting Charlie Crist in Florida, Bob Bennett in Utah, and even Lindsey Graham in South Carolina: Would Ronald Reagan — just looking at his record as president — be a target for conservatives today? After all, he raised taxes; his policies increased the size of the deficit; he reached out, through diplomatic channels, to Russia to end the Cold War; he had a pragmatist like James Baker serve as his chief of staff; and he picked the moderate George H.W. Bush as his running mate.
This has been chewed on a lot over the years (including by yours truly), so the notion that it’s a “provocative question” only makes sense to those who are coming very late to the party. Still, it’s a subject worth discussing.
But can I deflate the question’s significance just a bit? At least when liberals raise this argument, the intent seems to be to demonstrate how the Right has been hijacked by crazy wingnuts. There’s a special glee that comes with pointing out that Reagan wasn’t the stalwart some on the Right claim he was.
But isn’t this just a bit of a parlor game? JFK is worshipped by liberals arguably more than Reagan is by conservatives. But he was a hawkish, tax-cutting, anti-Communist, American exceptionalist who didn’t care all that much about civil rights. Someone holding Kennedy’s views in a Democratic primary would be running to Joe Lieberman’s right. The Democrats look awfully wingnutty against the JFK standard.
The Jimmy Carter in 1976, what with all his God-talk and odes to “ethnic purity” wouldn’t do so hot either. Someone holding Truman’s views would do even worse. Someone holding FDR’s views, at least on domestic issues, would do pretty well. Heck, that candidate won in 2008. But someone holding Woodrow Wilson’s views would probably become a target of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Presidents are important landmarks on history’s road and they tell us a great deal. Pundits use them to show how far we’ve traveled, and that’s fine. But the landmarks also illuminate how much the terrain has changed. Ronald Reagan was a product of his times, and he dealt with the challenges that presented themselves then. If Reagan were running for office today, he wouldn’t be talking about the Soviet menace, now would he? He’d be focusing on our problems today and learning from the lessons of yesterday, just like any good politician.