Republican debate on CNN: Is Reagan mystique myth or reality?

Republicans are sure to name-drop Ronald Reagan frequently at the presidential debate Wednesday at his presidential library. But his story is a complicated one.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Staff prepare for the second official Republican presidential debate of the 2016 campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Wednesday.

In any Republican presidential debate, Ronald Reagan’s name is likely to punctuate several applause lines.

During Wednesday night’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., it’s likely to loom larger than the Air Force One jet in the background.

Everyone from Sen. Rand Paul to Donald Trump has quoted – and misquoted – the nation’s 40th president in an effort to share some of his aura. The temptation is understandable. Mr. Reagan is in many ways the father of the modern Republican Party.

But more than 50 years after he first took office as governor of California, Reagan has become more mythic than real. Candidates carefully choose which bits of the Reagan legacy to cite.

Is he the actor who held the top union job in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actor’s Guild or who was at the same time testifying to Congress against fellow performers suspected of communist affiliations? Is he the banner-carrier for tax-cutting conservatism or the president who raised taxes 11 times? Were his policies defined more by his opposition to the top civil rights legislation of the 1960s or by his support for amnesty for three million illegal immigrants in the 1980s?

“Reagan is an amazingly interesting personality,” says Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University in Ames. “He is someone that conservatives can easily project their views onto, but, for instance, most conservatives don’t want to go into Reagan’s early life….”

“Republicans need a hero and in Reagan they have found one,” Professor Schmidt says. “They just don’t drill down into Reagan raising taxes or giving amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants.”

Despite this complicated – and often glossed-over – past, there is no doubt that Reagan had a transformational impact on the Republican Party. Prior to his presidency, the GOP was a clear minority party and losing ground, says Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

“After his presidency, it was clearly a competitive party and has gained strength since,” he says.

“Reagan also decisively moved the party to the right. Prior to Reagan, Republican presidential candidates rarely asked for tax cuts. Now, it’s impossible for someone to get nominated who doesn’t offer a tax cut plan,” he adds in an e-mail.

Reagan’s presidency planted the pole around which American politics revolved for the next quarter century, says Olsen. “Whether you liked or loathed him, your policies were formed in response to and defined by their relation to Reagan’s,” he says.

He suggests in his upcoming book that Reagan is best understood as the conservative who endorsed and modified core aspects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, such as Social Security and Medicare. That made him “very consequential, though not revolutionary – by potentially reconciling the GOP to the New Deal, he permitted a conservative interpretation of the New Deal’s development that moved politics rightward.”

For example, Reagan cut the highest marginal tax rate almost in half, and it has never gone back to pre-Reagan levels. This move “has had profound effects on the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in America,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

He also is responsible for drastic reductions in social services for the poor and mentally ill that have never returned to pre-Reagan levels, Professor Hale says. 

And there is no doubt that his tough posturing – backed by vast increases in military spending – went a long way to reasserting America dominance in the world and at least arguably to the collapse of the Soviet Union, he adds.

But “the myth about Ronald Reagan is that he did all of this by himself,” says Hale. The compromises he made with House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O'Neill are often ignored, and today Reagan is held up as an uncompromising conservative who never “cut a deal” to get things done.

“That is absolutely not true,” Hale says.  

Reagan’s willingness to talk and deal with Democrats could bring him under severe criticism today, perhaps making him unelectable in a Republican primary, Hale says. 

Republicans’ views of Reagan are in some ways emblematic of the challenges the party faces – pitting lofty visions against more-practical realities

“Reagan’s team developed a legend of pictures and visions in voters’ heads that exceed actual fights and battles in Sacramento and on Capitol Hill,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University via e-mail.

Whether it was a GOP insurrection in 1976, or raising taxes in California and battling for health care reform in the late 1960s, “or getting along with that other Irish pol, Tip O'Neill, the Reagan reality and the Reagan political legend were completely different things.”

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