Jayne: Another Reagan? Today's GOP wouldn't welcome him

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

It always is inspiring.

As the seat of American government and the embodiment of the American Dream and the cauldron of so much of our nation's history, Washington, D.C., always is inspiring. So, as we recently took a family vacation to the nation's capital, I was confident that I would be struck by a column idea along the way. I just didn't expect it to come from our tour guide at the Capitol building.

"We get calls all the time from people saying, 'Why can't we have another Ronald Reagan?' " said the young woman, an intern from the office of Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. "Some people just want to vent, but they wonder why we can't have another Reagan."

This, I suppose, is predictable. For three decades now, Reagan has been viewed as the pinnacle of modern conservatism, as the model for the Republican Party, as the man who made it morning again in America. He was the first president of my adult life, winning re-election in 1984 by capturing 49 states and 59 percent of the popular vote.

And while I can understand how Reagan is lionized by the right, I can't help but notice that many modern Republicans have distorted and bastardized his legacy to suit their own desires.

As political activist Mark McKinnon said: "Ronald Reagan was long thought to be the most conservative of Republicans. And by any standard today he is the most popular Republican in modern history. Yet he raised taxes 11 times, supported a ban on assault rifles and the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks, and established amnesty for 3 million undocumented workers."

In other words, if Reagan were running for dog catcher these days, some Tea Party adherent would challenge him in the primary by claiming that Reagan isn't conservative enough. The common analysis is to suggest that Reagan couldn't win the nomination in today's Republican Party, but this ignores the fact that he was a pragmatist cloaked in ideological clothing; he would adjust to the times.

A changing party

That is more than can be said for today's Republicans, the kind who wear intransigence as a badge of honor. As historian Alonzo L. Hamby wrote, "Like most American presidents, he wore his ideology lightly and was more notable for his flexibility than for his dogmatism."

Hamby's analysis can be found at Heritage.org as part of a collection of essays under the headline, "How Great was Ronald Reagan?," apparently written at the end of his presidency. It's fascinating reading, and it brings into sharp relief the differences between the Republican Party of Reagan and the Republican Party of, say, Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz.

As Stephen E. Ambrose wrote, "He has been very like Jack Kennedy in a number of ways: Cutting taxes to stimulate the economy, accepting large deficits in order to step up the pace of the arms race, indulging in Cold War rhetoric." I might be wrong about this, but I'm guessing that Reagan's modern acolytes would never compare him to Kennedy; that would be viewed as some sort of blasphemy.

"In part though hard policies but even more through his skills as a communicator, Reagan has successfully lifted the morale of a nation that in 1980 was wallowing in pessimism and uncertainty," wrote Hamby.

Therein lies the magic of Reagan. Sure he provided tax cuts that stimulated the economy, reducing the top marginal tax rate that was 70 percent when he took office. Yes, he won the Cold War, employing a "peace through strength" philosophy that helped facilitate the crumbling of the Soviet Union. But he also supported policies that are viewed as anathema to today's conservatives.

"Reagan's leadership was, above all, a triumph of personality," wrote historian James Nuechterlein. "His eloquence, charm, courage, and remarkable sense of self revived Americans' pride in the presidential office and, by extension, in the nation itself."

Which explains why we don't have another Ronald Reagan. Today's Republicans are long on rhetoric and short on inspiration.