June 27, 2017


How the Right Gets Reagan Wrong : And what will happen if they don't start getting him right. (HENRY OLSEN June 26, 2017, Politico)

The young Reagan was an ardent devotee of FDR and the Democratic Party. His friends from that era say he memorized FDR's "fireside chats" and incessantly prattled on about New Deal liberalism. Many assume that his political outlook changed so much as he moved to the right that he rejected FDR and the New Deal. But Reagan always said "I didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left me." Taking that line seriously is the first step to getting Reagan right.

Reagan's early conservative talks before he rose to national fame during Goldwater's bid for the presidency in October 1964 argued that certain government social programs weren't needed to meet "humanitarian aims." He would criticize bureaucrats who bossed people around or programs that gave aid to people who didn't need it. He did not, however, join other conservatives and say New Deal programs were unconstitutional or an improper thing for government to do. Nor, if the programs genuinely met a legitimate need, did he criticize them for costing too much.

Quite the contrary. I just about fell off my chair in the Reagan Library when I heard him say this in a 1958 speech: "In the last few decades we have indulged in a great program of social progress with many welfare programs. I'm sure that most of us in spite of the cost wouldn't buy many of these projects back at any price. They represented forward thinking on our part."

He repeated similar sentiments in every speech I listened to, even saying in 1961, "Any person in the United State who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him." That year, he supported an alternative to Medicare called the Kerr-Mills Act that gave federal funds to states so they could help poor senior citizens pay for medical care, even writing to a longtime friend that "if the money isn't enough I think we should put up more."

Reagan did not change his stripes as he became conservatism's hero, and continued to preach his own unique conservative vision. He told viewers of the October 1964 "Time for Choosing" speech endorsing Goldwater, the speech that made him a national political star, that conservatives were for "telling our senior citizens that that no one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds." He campaigned for governor of California saying talk "in America of left and right" was "disruptive talk, dividing us down the center." He said his "Creative Society," intended to be a non-bureaucratic alternative to Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," wasn't "some glorified program for passing the buck and telling people to play Samaritan and solve their problems on their own while government stands by to hand out Good Conduct ribbons." And when he became governor, he pushed through a then-record tax increase after his efforts to "cut, squeeze, and trim" government could not balance the budget.

He didn't alter his views when he ran for and became president, either. He often said, "Those who, through no fault of their own, must depend on the rest of us" would be exempt from budget cuts. He pushed through three tax increases as president, one of which made Social Security solvent for the past 35 years.

Reagan got these ideas from FDR, and often paraphrased lines uttered by his one-time idol. The line that government should support "those who, through no fault of their own," could not support themselves came from FDR, who used that exact phrase frequently to describe who deserved government help. In the Time for Choosing speech, Reagan chastised liberals by saying "the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's that so much they know isn't so." Reagan had adapted that line from a nearly identical variant uttered by FDR in his seventh fireside chat. Even Reagan's famous closing statement in the 1980 presidential debate against Jimmy Carter, when he asked Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago, was a direct paraphrase of a section of FDR's fifth fireside chat.

Conservative Republicans who didn't cotton to FDR didn't notice this, but the blue-collar voters who became known as "Reagan Democrats" sure did. During his governor's race, Reagan's margins were an astounding 36 percent to 44 percent larger than those of the 1962 Republican gubernatorial nominee, Richard Nixon, in towns dominated by blue-collar whites. He did dramatically better than other Republican presidential nominees in similar counties and towns when he ran for president, too. As one person told Reagan biographer Lou Cannon in 1984, "He isn't really like a Republican. He's more like an American, which is what we really need."

The singular fact of Reagan's life is that he was an adult during the Depression.

Posted by at June 27, 2017 5:14 AM