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Would today’s GOP elect Reagan?

Posted: January 19, 2012 11:52 a.m.
Updated: January 20, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Jon Huntsman has suspended his presidential campaign. No one is surprised. He stood out from the rest of the Republican presidential pack as an intelligent voice of reason, diplomacy and international expertise. In other words, he might have been the right man, but these are the wrong times.

Today's Grand Old Party, inflamed by tea party passions, is looking for fire breathers and bomb throwers. Even Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting nominated today. That leaves a lot of political elbow room for President Barack Obama.

I'm not exaggerating. Reagan's name is invoked repeatedly like a sacred mantra in GOP debates. But even the Gipper would be the target of vicious attack ads as some sort of moderate "RINO," Republican in Name Only, by today's hard-core conservatives. After all, even Reagan was not always the conservative purist Reagan that we think we know.

Sure, he took office as a tax-cutting, deficit reducing, cold war commie fighter, especially in his speeches. He signed a major tax cut and proposed billions in budget cuts shortly after his inauguration and vowed to scale back Social Security and Medicaid, which were heading into a funding crisis.

Reagan also promised to eliminate the departments of Energy and Education, which were established by President Jimmy Carter. Both are still opposed by conservatives like GOP contender and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who also famously wants to eliminate Commerce) as symbols of excessive Washington regulation.

But Reagan's revolution soon ran aground. As the recession deepened, his party lost congressional seats in the 1982 midterms. The Democratic Congress, led by House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill pushed back. With his approval ratings suffering in the recession, Reagan didn't fight like GOP Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s or John Boehner today. Instead, Reagan reversed course without any telltale dimming of his jolly smile.

Despite his promises to get government off the backs of the people, government stayed right where it was -- and grew.

It's not hard to imagine the ads and bumper-sticker slogans that a Reagan opponent's would make of his record today:

"Reagan Grew the Government." The number of workers on the federal payroll rose under Reagan, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and later fell under Bill Clinton. And instead of cutting Energy and Commerce, Reagan even added a new cabinet-level department, the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Reagan's Class Warfare." After his historic tax cut early in his first term, he repeatedly raised taxes during his two terms. He also created some new ones, including a Social Security tax on upper income earners. He saved Social Security; however, by today's right-wing standards, he'd probably be accused of cozying up to Occupy Wall Street.

"Gipper for Gay Rights." Contrasting with his later backing from religious "family values" conservatives, his outspoken opposition in 1978 as California's former governor helped to defeat an initiative in that state that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.

"Amnesty Ronnie." Today's would-be border sealers fume and rage at the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Yet few of those critics mention that Reagan signed that bill.

Reagan, quite simply, was a pragmatist. He is lauded reverentially by conservatives today for what he said more than for what he actually did. Like other successful presidents, he was ready to make deals to get things done on behalf of what he believed to be the public's interest, not just his ideology.

The GOP's angry all-or-nothing wing was bad for Huntsman's prospects, yet ironically helpful to Obama's future. Huntsman was popular enough with independents and even some liberals to have given Obama some serious competition, had he been nominated. If Obama's hidden reason for naming Huntsman to be his ambassador to China was to put a taint on him that would repel conservative voters, it appears to have worked like a charm.

That left the GOP with frontrunner Romney, whom Huntsman endorsed. Romney's air of inevitability picked up valuable momentum with his victories in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. The Anybody-But-Mitt movement looks more toothless by the day. Perhaps somewhere Reagan is smiling.

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