reagan’s appeal

Mark Levin explains what we are missing in the new Reagan wannabes.

Reagan helped build and lead the modern conservative movement. That can’t be said of any of the current Republican candidates. He helped give it substance and voice. He fought the Left in Hollywood. He was an outspoken Barry Goldwater supporter when Goldwater was fairly unpopular with the general public. He took on Gerald Ford, challenging him from the Right. Indeed, his candidacies in 1968, 1976, and 1980 were all ideologically based. And he obviously won in 1980 as the most conservative candidate in modern history. And both as a candidate and president, Reagan constantly spoke of conservative principles, as he had since the mid-to-late 1950s. He was not a recent convert. He used his position to educate the people about government’s limits. But he also understood, like Edmund Burke and many others, that changing half a century of liberal government would take time.

So, while he couldn’t succeed in every respect as president, and would reach compromises now and then, he tried to push the massive ship of state in the right direction. And he had many successes (too many people focus on the setbacks). He left a legacy that could have been built upon by his successor, but it was not.

That’s it. That’s where Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Huckabee and others can’t duplicate Reagan — the leadership he showed, not only as President, but as someone who not only believed in conservatism and was willing to fight in the arena of ideas. You can’t buy that kind of resume. You can’t be converted into it. You can still believe in conservative principles to varying degrees, and still not have the ability to fight for and advance those principles as Reagan did while he was our President.

Most of our top tier candidates are more than capable of leading the country in the right direction, but as far as finding a new leader for conservatism, you won’t find one of those in the Republican presidential candidate pool. Maybe we need to look somewhere else for that person, and be willing to settle for someone who won’t exactly be the kind of leader that Reagan was. The future of conservatism is not in the hands of any of these men, or in the hands of the Democrat contenders. So it won’t be lost no matter what happens in the next presidential election. We just have to fight a little harder if Hillary wins.

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11 thoughts on “reagan’s appeal

  1. Hi Lisa, told ya I would pay you a visit soon.

    I’m very curious about this post on Reagan, and curious in general why the right seems to hold every candidate up to the Reagan test. I know history’s blurry sometimes, but Reagan’s presidency ended less than twenty years ago so I’m taken aback by some of the forgetfulness about his presidency from the right. Hardly does the National Review surprise me in their Reagan love, though.

    Where I’m stuck at is what is the “modern conservative movement” that Reagan so created? Issues wise, what is this conservatism that Levin mentions (almost endlessly) and you say Reagan advanced while he was president?

    History shows us that it was Reagan who granted amnesty to over 3 million illegal aliens in 1986, something the right would never consider to be an advancement of conservative issues today. While governor Reagan was pro-choice in the most pro-choice state in the Union but conveniently flip-flopped when running for president in 1980. Romney today could only dream of being as easily forgiven and then granted idolatry as Reagan was and later became.

    Even when president what in God’s green earth did Reagan do to limit abortion, or much less illegalize it? His greatest contribution to the abortion debate is Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, the two swing votes that upheld Roe v. Wade. Today the right won’t even give a candidate the time of day if he doesn’t call for a Constitutional amendment to ban all abortions. Where is the advancement, or creation, of modern conservatism on that issue?

    And finally on to the topic conservatives love to talk about, taxes. As president, Reagan raised taxes more times than any president since FDR. Here’s a good NRO article ( explaining why Reagan did what he did, and Bush should too concerning taxes. If there is any one issue that voids the conservative movement bearer it has to be Reagan’s dilemma with taxes.

    I could go on and on, but I won’t take up anymore space. I’m just curious to know what about any of that is the “modern conservative movement” that conservatives/neocons want in a candidate for 2008? Even Reagan doesn’t match up to the Reagan test.

    No it’s not Reagan the right’s looking for. Not in the least bit.

  2. Sorry if there are duplicate comments. Something crashed while writing and I tried to save what I could……i hate the internet.

  3. I heard you mention a few of the candidates but what do you think of Ron Paul? He is the first politician in many years that I will feel very good about voting for. Yes, time will tell but I think this man plans on trying to do what he states.

  4. Chris,

    Nothing crashed. The comments went to mod b/c you hadn’t commented in a while. 🙂

    Levin even says that Reagan’s record was imperfect on judges, on the amnesty, and on abortion. He made mistakes. Reagan can’t live up to the mystical hype created around him by Republicans today. I agree with you on that.

    Reagan made some bad Supreme Court picks. It won’t be the first and last time a Republican president nominates someone who they believe agrees with them on abortion, and who is unpleasantly surprised when that’s not the case. (That’s what happens in the nomination process when nominees have to pretend they don’t come into the job without bias on that one way or the other.) I don’t think that Reagan chose those two because he was still secretly pro-choice.

    Reagan’s overall record as President was that he was pro-life. Levin gives a few examples of that.

    Reagan also made a mistake on amnesty, but he believed, like so many Republicans in Congress that that would fix the illegal immigration problem. He didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge Congress should have today, which is that amnesty doesn’t fix illegal immigration, it encourages more of it.

    Reagan’s “sins” were forgivable…and the typical conservative response to all the tax increases would be to blame the Democratic Congress, and to point out, as Bartlett does, that Reagan expected spending cuts to go along with those tax hikes. 🙂 Besides, how many Presidents that you know would ever try to mess with anything regarding Social Security? It would be political suicide for anyone who tries it.

    Even though Reagan made some mistakes along the way, there are limits to what any President can do with the broken Washington system we have. The president is only one person. Congress is many people who have their own agendas — the main one being their own re-election. There are a few members of Congress who take the responsibilities seriously in deciding how much of our money to spend, but there are not enough of those people to make any serious change.

    I don’t idolize Reagan the way many conservatives do (Hannity being the prime example of course). But what I’m seeing from these Republicans is that they are a bunch of followers. They will say exactly what we want to hear. Even Rudy does this. They seem incapable of having an original thought once in a while that hasn’t been focus-group tested more than once.

    All these other Republican candidates want to be Reagan because conservatives continue to see him as someone who was an advocate for what they believe. We can argue about how effective he was at advancing conservative priorities, but he certainly was better at it than any recent president we have had.

  5. Very nice reply Lisa. Very nice indeed. But, but…what are those conservative priorities that he was so effective at advancing? From those priorities I’m hoping then we can judge what exactly it is that defines this “modern conservative movement” the right keeps referring to. Because like you and I both mention, Reagan was by no means picture perfect and by rendition of his record not responsible for the Constitutional amendment to ban abortion that defines modern conservatism, or the president who nominated strict “originalists” judges to strike down Roe, which is the basis of movement conservatism. To suggest that someone who nominated Sandra Day and Kennedy to the Supreme Court could possibly be responsible for movement conservatism like Levin does is comical. Modern movement conservatism is nominating originalists to the Supreme (amongst others) and nothing less.

    It appears that Reagan was also one of those so-called conservatives who would say anything and then do nothing of the sort while in office. His record on immigration, abortion and taxes clearly demonstrate such. I have yet to see what movement he initiated and thusly is responsible for today in regards to modern movement conservatism.

    My theory is that movement conservatism (reversing Roe, outlawing taxes, deporting immigrants and phasing out social security) is not as mainstream as the right believes it to be and backed up by the very fact that neither Reagan nor the Bushes have done anything to advance any of those issues. Just a theory of course 😉

    See ya girl!

  6. Heritage has some interesting numbers here regarding Reagan and taxes. I’m going to quote a little bit of their analysis. The formatting may be a bit off on this.

    Nevertheless, even if one counts the Social Security payroll tax, the share of total federal taxes increased between 1980 and 1989 for the following groups:

    * For the top 1 percent of taxpayers, from 12.9 percent in 1980 to 15.4 percent in 1989;
    * For the top 5 percent of taxpayers, from 27.3 percent in 1980 to 30.4 percent in 1989; and
    * For the top 20 percent of taxpayers, from 56.1 percent in 1980 to 58.6 percent in 1989.

    On the other hand, the share of total federal taxes, if one includes the Social Security payroll tax, declined for four groups:

    For the second-highest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 22.2 percent in 1980 to 20.8 percent in 1989;
    * For the middle 20 percent of taxpayers, from 13.2 percent in 1980 to 12.5 percent in 1989;
    * For the second-lowest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 6.9 percent in 1980 to 6.4 percent in 1989; and
    * For the lowest 20 percent of taxpayers, from 1.6 percent in 1980 to 1.5 percent in 1989.

    Quite a few people got tax cuts under the Reagan administration, according to Heritage’s numbers. I suppose you could argue that these weren’t very significant tax cuts. The point is that he did cut taxes.

    He also cut government spending. National Review has the info on that. According to this article, Reagan cut the budget of 8 of 15 government agencies during his first term, and 10 out of 15 agencies during his second term. As far as domestic spending is concerned, we have never had a president willing to make any significant cuts there, or a Congress who would back him up on that kind of budget. It would be hard to justify cutting military spending any further with the Cold War in progress and the need to demonstrate strength in the face of communism. That’s not to say that every penny was well-spent in that area, but it was necessary to increase spending over that of the previous administration.

    You also mentioned abortion. Obviously, the National Right to Life was more convinced that his overall record on life issues was solid ((pdf here), even though they were disappointed by the Sandra Day O’Connor SCOTUS pick. In the New York Times, William Clark, Reagan’s NSA and Secretary of the Interior, defends Reagan’s pro-life record and explains why he thinks Reagan would oppose embryonic stem-cell research. (That article is only semi-related, but it does have some bearing on Reagan’s resume as someone who was consistently pro-life). Whatever he believed in California, he made no attempt to duplicate it in the White House.

    I’m getting a bit long-winded here. The polling you previously cited on abortion does suggest that most Americans are opposed to making abortion illegal. The assumption is that reversing Roe would make abortion illegal instead of just throwing the decision back to the states, and so, based on that, there is mainstream opposition. For most of these issues, it’s all in the framing. Nobody except Tom Tancredo is talking about deporting all the illegals. The position conservatives have that I believe most Americans share is that people who break our laws to get into this country shouldn’t be here. Most conservatives acknowledge that it’s impossible to deport all the lawbreakers, but we have to start somewhere. I challenge you to find polling that suggests that most Americans are in favor of giving government benefits to illegals or even giving them driver’s licenses. We also believe that employers should be punished for knowingly hiring people who are here illegally. What’s so radical about that?

    As far as Social Security is concerned, people are afraid of change. This is an area where reforms are needed, but Social Security is one of those untouchable entitlements that the politically timid leave to rot because they are afraid of public opinion. No one wants to get rid of the safety net, but there’s no reason why younger people paying into the system have to get the same puny returns on their Social Security investments that the retirees get. This is an argument that needs to be made, and no one is willing to take the risk on criticizing such a popular entitlement.

    On both Bushes, I agree that there hasn’t been much progress on the agenda items you mentioned, although Bush deserves credit for Alito and Roberts on the SC. Bush 41 was a moderate though, and there was really no reason to expect much conservatism out of him. Unfortunately, in so many ways Dubya is too much like his old man.

  7. It is true Reagan cut taxes and the wealthy enjoyed them the most, but he also raised taxes, many times, actually more times than anyone since FDR. But Reagan didn’t cut government spending, not in the least bit. He might have cut government spending to certain programs, like the Heritage report mentions (I think it cherry picks 15 programs or something), but cutting program spending does not equal total government spending. Total government spending rose every year with Reagan, just like it has with every president since WWII ( Cutting a few programs here and there while increasing spending in other areas doesn’t equal fiscal conservatism or any movement; at least I don’t believe so. Just because Reagan cut spending in 10 programs in his second term that means he created this supposed “modern conservative movement?” Nope.

    I think a good argument could be made that cutting social programs while increasing defense spending could be the beginning of this “modern conservative movement” that I’ve been wondering about, but King George II has thrown that off a bit by not only increasing spending but also the overall size of government without any sort of fiscal policy whatsoever. Though cutting certain social programs but not every social program such as the ones Republicans love (like Congress’ pension system) and calling that a “modern conservative movement” is a stretch of words and creed.

    In the realm of taxes and their relation to fiscal management and given the fact that Reagan left a $150 billion deficit, I still don’t see a “movement” and certainly not one that’s ideologically related to present day conservatism.

    On abortion, it would be hard to imagine true right wing conservatives, or ones who claim to be part of this new “conservative movement,” supporting a person for president if that person did not publicly state that they would only nominate “originalists” to the Supreme Court. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the right wing say that their biggest concern in a candidate is what their nominations would look like. I’ve seen you mention the same many times on your site as well. In 2000, Al Gore was constantly hammered by the right because they didn’t believe he would nominate people to the Supreme Court who shared their philosophical and ideological principles. There’s nothing wrong with having that stance and wanting a candidate to support things you care deeply about. But suggesting that because Reagan was personally opposed to abortion and apparently always favored life (like Clark suggests), that his nominations to the Court can be forgiven making him responsible for a modern movement is laughable. If that’s the case, then what’s the difference between Reagan and Bill Clinton?

    Clinton is also personally opposed to abortion, and yet nominated someone very similar to the Court as Reagan did. Why isn’t Clinton treated the same?

    I believe on illegal immigration the position most conservatives support, and the position that the right defines as part of this “modern conservative movement” definitely is not amnesty, and that is exactly what Reagan did. Again, there is a huge flip-flop here by trying to argue that yes what Reagan did was grant amnesty and because Reagan did that we now realize that amnesty doesn’t work; nevertheless, Reagan is responsible for the movement because he didn’t do anything close to what the movement supposedly is. Doesn’t make a lot sense.

    To me it appears the movement came well after Reagan and now conservatives are trying to paint a very fuzzy picture of Reagan as an idol president when Reagan never actually did anything the modern conservatives are proclaiming as a platform. He raised taxes numerous times, granted amnesty to over 3 million illegal aliens, nominated Day and Kennedy, and did nothing to curb spending and control the deficit.

    In that regard, I think your last paragraph sums up what I’ve been saying more than anything:

    “On both Bushes, I agree that there hasn’t been much progress on the agenda items you mentioned, although Bush deserves credit for Alito and Roberts on the SC. Bush 41 was a moderate though, and there was really no reason to expect much conservatism out of him. Unfortunately, in so many ways Dubya is too much like his old man.”

    It was actually George W. Bush who appointed the judges the right claims in their platform. It’s actually Bush who has tried (unsuccessfully) to phase out social security; it’s actually Bush that cut taxes without raising them one single penny. This modern conservative movement is Bush, not Reagan. No matter how the right tries to spin this, Reagan did none of the above and didn’t want to. Now if Bush becomes popular again, or maybe hits 35% approval which is popular for the right wing, I’m willing to bet the right will start backing away from Reagan and claiming Georgie as their standard bearer. After all, the only issue Bush isn’t in line with is amnesty. But hey, one’s better than having none like Reagan.

    This “modern conservative movement” is George W. Bush. He had all three branches of government under a one party control; the permanent conservative majority was in reach. But since he’s not popular and Reagan was, the right with tons of help from Fox News, NRO, Limbaugh and the rest of their media, is trying desperately to rewrite Reagan’s presidency. Reagan was a good president. I’m not disagreeing with that at all, but I don’t buy into him being the one who “helped build and lead the modern conservative movement” and certainly didn’t do anything to “advance” the modern conservative platform 😉

    Sorry this is winded 🙂

  8. I never claimed that he cut total government spending. I do think, however, that the department cuts have something to do with reducing the size of government, even if those cuts couldn’t be considered as an example of fiscal conservatism. Reducing the size of government has always been part of this modern conservatism. I can’t argue with the numbers on total government spending, and Reagan didn’t do as well as he could on that. But again, there were obvious limitations on how much he could get away with cutting due to the Democratic Congress, and the need to increase military spending was there due to the Cold War and the Communists.

    My main objection is that you are accusing Reagan of being no different from any other politician, who will say whatever he/she has to say to get elected. What I’m reading into your comments is that you believe that Reagan was insincere in his public statements. Maybe that’s not how you meant it, but that’s the impression I get from what you have said. Doesn’t he get any credit at all for fighting ideological battles and losing those battles?

    I’ll give you an example. Judge Bork. The forgotten potential Supreme Court nominee. There was no doubt where he stood on abortion. Reagan wanted him on the Court.
    If Reagan gets blame for O’Connor and Kennedy, he should also get credit for conservative judges, like…I don’t know…Rehnquist and Scalia. Surely you can’t question whether those two are pro-life.

    Are you seriously telling me that you see no difference between Reagan — who, in addition to the judges mentioned above, wrote that article “Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation” on the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade — to William Jefferson Clinton, who never met a position he didn’t like at one point or another? Many people are personally opposed to abortion. Many Presidents have been. Reagan had some conservative SCOTUS picks, and that’s the best way to advance the pro-life cause. Clinton was someone who tried to make everyone think he agreed with them. Reagan wasn’t like that.

    As far as conservatives supporting someone who is pro-choice, but promises to nominate originalist judges, that’s a choice we might have to make down the road. Some pro-life religious leaders have already decided to stake their reputations on Giuliani’s electability, which will be more benefit to them than it will be to Giuliani. I’ll be honest. I don’t completely trust Giuliani. While it may be true that he won’t be as scary as HC and her inclination to find a government solution for every American problem, he hasn’t shown any past inclination to nominate the kind of judges he promises to nominate if he becomes President. I’m also not convinced that any President, regardless of his/her intentions, would ever make a serious commitment to reduce government spending or its size.

    I don’t have any rebuttal on Reagan and the amnesty.

    It’s an interesting point you make about reducing social spending in relationship to an increase in military spending. Bush has increased both. Compassionate conservatives don’t believe in small government. They may object to the way liberals allocate the social spending, but there’s not much difference otherwise. “Compassionate conservatives” may favor faith-based social spending over a secular government-funded program, but they still believe that the money should be spent. Military spending will continue to climb, because no politician wants to have a vote against that on their record at election time.

    There are two areas where conservatives disagree with Bush 43. Amnesty is one. Spending is the other problem we have with the President. What we are seeing is a fissure with all the different types of conservative groups. Social conservatives are the ones who are still supporting Bush. Fiscal conservatives are unhappy with the spending. Most of us object to the amnesty bill and the lack of tangible commitment to border enforcement. Many of us, believe it or not, still support Bush on the war.

    The idolatry of Reagan is more about what he said than about what he did. The heart of the mythology is the image of Reagan challenging the Soviet Union and using the strength of our military to maximum advantage during the Cold War. I believe that his contributions were more significant to the modern conservative movement than you do, but I agree that he didn’t do as much as he could have done, despite the glowing reviews of Hannity and Levin.

    Even after all this time of thinking about your question, it’s possible that I didn’t do a great job of answering it. Hopefully I will (at least) get credit for the attempt. 😉

  9. But…but…what are those conservatives priorities that Reagan was so effective at advancing? I still don’t see a “movement,” or really anything close to a movement; at least no more so than I can compare Bill Clinton to, and I would never argue that he created a modern progressive movement. Comparably, I must say the same for Reagan.

    From what I can gather from you and Levin is that The “modern conservative movement,” the one that National Review, the AEI, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh—and others commonly referred to as neocons in general conversation, and the point of both our comments— is actually a loose collection of Republican voting peoples, consisting of fiscal conservatives, compassionate conservatives, social conservatives, small government conservatives, big spending and big government conservatives, all of whom may or may not support any of the same issues. It could be any of those just as long as none of it is viewed as caving in to liberals, correct?

    The point of the matter is that Reagan really has very little to do with the neoconservative movement, or modern conservatism. That’s not saying Reagan was not a conservative or the bearer of conservativism, it’s just saying he’s no “modern conservative.” Unless I’m confusing neoconservatism with modern conservatism, and maybe we both are, but I don’t see Reagan having much in relation to helping “build and lead the modern conservative movement.” His two conservative SCOTUS nominations are only offset by his two moderate/liberal nominations and his record on taxes/big government and spending, illegal immigration, etc., leave me unconvinced on his modern conservative credentials.

    I do beg to differ that I took your sentence: “He also cut government spending”, at face value, meaning that he cut federal budget spending. He cut spending on programs, but not federal spending as a whole. Reagan merely transferred funds, and did nothing to shrink the size of the federal government. In contrast, the federal government shrunk more under Clinton than any president since FDR and no one is arguing for his sainthood into conservatism.

    Good attempt, though. If it’s any credit, my email to Levin is still unanswered at the moment. If he replies I’ll let you know. Thanks for the conversation Lisa.

    p.s., the comment box is way too small. I can barely make out what I’m typing 🙁

    and not to complain, well just a little, could we get a preview button also 🙂

  10. You keep asking the question about what conservative priorities Reagan advanced, and I guess I don’t have a solid answer to that question. There is a case to be made for Reagan as the hero of the neocons, which I mentioned briefly. That is the closest connection to this modern conservatism that I see when I look at Reagan’s time as President. It’s easy to view him as an advocate for the pro-life cause, based on some of his speeches and on that article I mentioned, as well as two of those judicial appointments. Is it really necessary to succeed in every ideological battle to be considered as someone who advanced conservative priorities? Maybe a better way to say what I was trying to say is that Reagan was a leader of the conservative movement, unlike the Republican presidential candidates who will say what SoCons want to hear, whether they actually believe it and will fight for that belief, or whether they don’t.

    I think we probably need to clarify whether we are talking about “modern conservatism” and whatever Levin’s definition of that is or whether there is some other definition. I take no credit or blame for his argument, even though I approvingly quoted it. 😛 I still object to this Reagan / Clinton comparison. Clinton had a very transient belief system. It shifted based on polling. Clinton could never lead a modern progressive movement, or any kind of progressive movement, because he wasn’t an ideologue. Reagan was. That is the difference between them (as I see it anyway). I’m glad that you are willing to give Reagan at least some credit for being a leader of conservatism. That’s all I was trying to say there, and I guess I should have just said that instead. 🙂

    That’s the problem with conservatives — we are a very fractured consituency group. I would break it down this way: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neoconservatives and maybe throw in a few Ron Paul libertarians. Fiscal conservatives are generally small-government, low taxes, reduce spending, etc. Social conservatives, big-government conservatives and compassionate conservatives are (unfortunately) often the same folks. (I seem to recall writing a post about this once…) SoCons don’t see much wrong with government spending on their favorite programs, possibly of the faith-based variety, and believe that government should be involved in advancing religious beliefs. We have already defined who the neocons are, although I’m not sure that every single one of them is on-board with pre-emptive war.

    Bill Clinton will never be considered a saint of any kind, and he certainly doesn’t deserve ALL the credit for the federal government shrinking on his watch. FDR shouldn’t be credited with government shrinkage either since he created the welfare state. 😛

    I trust you will approve of the improvements to the comment box, as well as the live preview below the comment box. There are more exciting improvements I could make, but WordPress templates are a pain to edit, especially the part with the comment plugins. 🙁

    Guess I should end this thread, since I really need to start writing some new posts. It was fun, as always.

  11. What is this? Chris actually making some good points? Wow. I should put some more Jack into my eggnog.

    The truth about Reagan is that he was a strong leader. He was a steadfast believer in America. He was decisive. All the things that Jimmy Carter wasn’t.

    Reagan filled the chasm of leadership left by the shame on Richard Nixon.

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