By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
As someone who has studied Ronald Reagan's presidency at great length, I feel comfortable conceding that if he were alive today, he probably would not be striding the battlements, cheering for Roe v. Wade, or the rights of gays to marry.
But he would not be spending a lot of time worrying about such things either.
The so-called social issues were a sideshow for Reagan. His priorities were a) cutting taxes, and b) defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and c) reducing the size of government.
That was a big enough order. Reagan did great at "b" and OK at "a" (people forget how many times he raised taxes in his eight years in office) and failed at "c."
It was Reagan who sat down with Tip O'Neill and Alan Greenspan and preserved Social Security for two generations. Aside from a few public works programs (remember CETA?) no significant government agencies died on Reagan's watch. And it was Reagan who shattered the existing rules and blessed every politician then and since with the notion that titanic budget deficits are fine.
Reagan spent but a pittance of his political capital on the social causes of the religious right. Sure, Ed Meese would occasionally rail about pornography. And Reagan did nominate Judge Bork (before dropping him at the sign of a fight). But Reagan was about optimism, and rallying Americans—and reaching out to new groups of voters, including ethnic Democrats and young folks.
Reagan could read a poll. So could Jim Baker and Michael Deaver. The last thing they wanted was to shrink their coalition to a small collection of sour-pussed church ladies, or to hand the U.S. government over to the fun-killing Reverend Moores of the Bible Belt so they could regulate what we do in our bedrooms.
Reagan was a traditionalist—but he was a Hollywood traditionalist, and a libertarian. He was divorced. He was friends with Rock Hudson. He told dirty jokes. His widow, Nancy, supports embryonic stem cell research. His religious and family values were quite bendable.
The problem with great presidents—like Reagan or Franklin D. Roosevelt—is that after they are gone their acolytes like to fix them in stone. So the Democrats cast the New Deal as inviolable holy writ, though Roosevelt had always counseled "bold persistent experimentation." And so today's social conservatives fail to recognize the libertarian, and pragmatic, sides of Reaganism—and its great appeal.
The future, in politics, is with the kids. Right now the Democrats are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of a new generation, who have a political consciousness that differs from that of their parents, just as their parents' beliefs differed from those of their own parents.
The good news for social conservatives is that younger folks tend to view abortion with more skepticism; the bad news is they just don't care if gays get married. And the really bad news is that they take it as a sign of bigotry or small-mindedness among those who do.
Smart Republicans know their party needs to grow. It needs to be inclusive, and to apply its best values to new and changing times. That is all that Meghan McCain and Steve Schmidt are saying, just as Karl Rove and George W. Bush and Grover Norquist tried to tell Republicans about the importance of wooing minority voters, especially Hispanic-Americans—until the wacko anti-immigration forces got the upper hand.
The passion of a few, drinking their own Fox News bathwater, is no substitute for a compelling, future-looking political vision that seeks to build, and not divide.
The great danger for the GOP, right now, is that it will be trapped in Limbaugh-Coulter land.
Intolerance and hatred is not Reaganism.
If he was around today, and had two gay friends out in Hollywood who decided to get married, Reagan would probably shake his head, and maybe crack a joke at their expense, but he might just send them a wedding present.
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