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The real Ronald Reagan may not meet today's GOP standards

The pragmatic side of the former president, who was willing to compromise when necessary, is overlooked as he becomes a conservative icon.

September 06, 2011|By Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times
  • Docent Debbie Van Dellen in February at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where Wednesday's Republican presidential debate will be held.
Docent Debbie Van Dellen in February at the Ronald Reagan Presidential… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

When the Republican presidential hopefuls gather to debate Wednesday night in Simi Valley, one thing seems certain: Lavish tribute will be paid to Ronald Reagan.

That is fitting: The event is being held at Reagan's presidential library and burial ground, high on a bluff overlooking the Santa Susana Mountains.

It's also smart politics. Reagan has become a sainted figure within the GOP who, not incidentally, is the most successful and popular of the party's modern presidents.

But the Reagan reverie will doubtless overlook much of the Reagan reality.

As president, the conservative icon approved several tax increases to deal with a soaring budget deficit, repeatedly boosted the nation's debt limit, signed into law a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and, despite his anti-Washington rhetoric, oversaw an increase in the size and spending of the federal government. Before that, as California governor, he enacted what at the time was the largest state tax increase in American history. He also signed into law one of the nation's most permissive abortion bills; any Republican who tried that today would be cast out of the party.

The fact that Reagan often took the actions grudgingly speaks to what, by modern Republican standards, may be one of the greatest heresies of all: At bottom, Reagan was a pragmatist, willing, when necessary, to cut a deal and compromise.

"He had a strong set of core values and operated off of those," said Stuart Spencer, a GOP strategist who stood by Reagan's side for virtually his entire political career, starting with his first run for governor. "But when push came to shove, he did various things he didn't like doing, because he knew it was in the best interests of the state or country at the time."

Spencer, with characteristic bluntness, dismissed the current vogue of Reagan revisionism: "A lot of those people running out there don't really understand what he did. It's just a matter of attaching themselves to a winner."

Reagan's transformation from man to myth is, to some degree, calculated. The passage of time almost invariably casts a warm (or at least warmer) glow on recent past presidents. Thanks to their good works, Democrats Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have risen in the public's esteem. Even Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace, has ticked up in opinion surveys.

In Reagan's case, there has been an orchestrated campaign over the last several years by acolytes eager to glorify his image and affix his name to as many public markers — airports, mountains, roads, bridges, buildings — as possible.

But Reagan is also celebrated because he achieved big things, both domestically, where he revived the nation's flagging self-confidence, and abroad, where he helped drive the Soviet Union to extinction.

After a deep and stubborn recession early on, the economy thrived for much of Reagan's two terms and, though partisans may debate the causes and the ultimate costs of that boomlet, those frothy times compare quite favorably with today's anxiety-ridden environment.

"It wasn't like pushing a button and the machine just took off," said Lou Cannon, a retired Washington Post reporter who wrote several books chronicling Reagan's career, starting with his two terms in Sacramento. "It took some calibration" — the top income tax rate was cut drastically while various tax breaks and loopholes ended — "but Reagan was practical and willing to calibrate."

Many also extol Reagan for his command of the presidency — both its power and trappings — in further contrast, they say, with the current occupant of the White House.

"He came into office with a strong set of principles and, with some digressions and a few failures, fought for them, represented them and stood by them," said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter and political strategist. (Reagan was also a fabulously gifted politician, even if that description made him blanch. "He had a way of seeming steadfast," Khachigian said, "even when he was bending.")

The Republican Party has obviously changed greatly since Reagan first ran for president in 1968, and even since he left office with a solid 63% approval rating in January 1989. It is hard to imagine a governor with Reagan's record on taxes and abortion faring very well in today's GOP nominating fight, even if he did repudiate those positions.

Reagan's willingness to compromise has also fallen badly out of favor in a Republican Party fired up by its give-no-quarter "tea party" ranks.

"People that pragmatic now are what they call RINOs," said Spencer, using the epithet, "Republican in Name Only," that is flung by keepers of the faith at those deemed less than pure.

If, however, the Reagan of real life seems less welcome on Wednesday night's debate stage than the Reagan the candidates are likely to conjure, not every admirer seems as ready to restyle the 40th president to suit today's political fashion.

"You can make someone so iconic and so near divine that you lose the essence of the man," said Craig Shirley, a longtime conservative strategist and Reagan biographer. "If you are faithful and you want to do the man justice, then you have to accept the whole body of knowledge," compromises and all.

"I don't think," Shirley said, "you should cherry-pick history."

mark.barabak@latimes.com

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