Successful politicians exploit, buy off, and sell out the movements that animate their campaigns. And Ronald Reagan was a successful politician. He came into the presidency as the embodiment of a conservative movement coalition, and left, dismissed by movement leaders as a “useful idiot,” by Howard Phillips, chair of the Conservative Caucus.
As aspirants for the Republican presidential nomination invoke President Reagan’s name, and seek to outflank each other on the right to claim his mantle, it’s worthwhile to remember how (and how severely) his presidency frustrated the conservative movements of the time. (Although it certainly didn’t please people on the left.)
Candidate Ronald Reagan, a two-term governor of California (where he presided over the largest tax increase in California history), tried to ride and unite several conservative movements to the Republican presidential nomination, in a challenge to incumbent Gerald Ford (who employed Dick Cheney as his chief of staff) in 1976. The effort failed, but damaged Ford. By 1980, Reagan had the strongest claim among the Republican hopefuls as the conservative movement candidate.
Candidate Reagan pledged fealty to the religious right, promising to bring back prayer in the schools and end legal access to abortion. He rode the then-rising tide of anti-tax advocacy, promising to reduce taxes and the size of government, and to eliminate the federal budget deficit. He campaigned for massive increases in military spending and promised a tougher line against the Soviet Union, in adherence to the conservative movement’s line on foreign policy.
In office, Reagan continued to pay lip service to the movements that made his candidacy successful, but he also, increasingly as his term went on, trimmed his agenda to what seemed politically possible.
Putting prayer in the schools and outlawing abortion depended upon the Supreme Court, and two of President Reagan’s appointees (Sandra Day O’Connor and William Kennedy) consistently supported court precedent on those issues, demonstrating an institutionally conservative approach to social change–rather than a movement conservative approach. Reagan regularly addressed the anti-abortion crusaders at the annual March for Life demonstrations–by telephone hook-up, but pursued their agenda in a more moderate way than they demanded.
President Reagan cut income taxes dramatically when he entered office and, contrary to supply side dogma, revenues decreased and the deficit ballooned. Reagan presided over several substantial tax increases over the rest of his term. Federal spending increased dramatically, as did the size of government. Part of this was the result of unprecedented peacetime military spending, but President Reagan flinched at the idea of harsh cuts to most federal programs (see budget director David Stockman’s memoir of the period).
Increased military spending snaked through the Pentagon for the rest of the 1980s, but President Reagan’s confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union abated before the end of his first term, partly a reaction to the nuclear freeze movement. Incoming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev received a note from Reagan, hand-delivered by Vice President George Bush, just as he took office. Reagan agreed to cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, and was ready to trade away even more nuclear weapons if the Soviets would accept his dream of space based anti-missile weapons (“Star Wars”). His conservative supporters were appalled, and questioned his lucidity on the matter.
Ask about immigration reform. President Reagan signed a comprehensive immigration bill that legalized millions of undocumented immigrants.
My point? I’m not seeking to reconstruct the Reagan presidency as moderate. Ronald Reagan governed as a conservative, and was the prime target for movements of the left at the time.
Rather, I mean to point out how successful politicians are willing to compromise on their movement supporters’ vital matters of principle. Republican presidential hopefuls are terrified of even acknowledging this as a possibility, preferring a plaster saint as iconic hero to the real two-term president.