Heading into tonight’s GOP debate, was the real Ronald Reagan anything like the leader the Republicans worship?

If Ronald Reagan were among the 11 prime-time candidates debating this evening at his namesake library – if he were not a legend, but just another candidate – there would be abundant fodder for attack.

Instead, viewers can expect to hear reverent utterances to a towering icon who shaped the present-day Republican Party. Likely absent will be parts of Reagan’s record that clash with conservative ideology.

For instance, as California governor, Reagan signed into law what was then the nation’s most liberal abortion act. As president, he signed an amnesty that legalized the status of 3 million undocumented immigrants. As both governor and president, he oversaw record tax hikes. The federal government grew under his watch. He endorsed the Brady Bill for gun control.

CLICK: Guns, taxes, immigration and abortion: How the GOP presidential candidates compare to Ronald Reagan

“If Ronald Reagan declared as a candidate today, I don’t think he could win the nomination,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at USC. “He has become the shibboleth of the conservative right, but the reality of Ronald Reagan isn’t what the conservative right is promoting.”

Reagan did not campaign on tax hikes, big government and abortion rights. Running for president in 1980, he condemned those things – and did so with a charismatic effectiveness that for many overshadow his actual record.

“Reagan gave the party an ideological direction it never had,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. “That, more than specific policies, is what’s remembered.”

When he painted big government as a public enemy, he won supporters who stood steadfast with all that followed.

“People decide whether they can trust a leader, and then they decide whether that leader did what they wanted,” said Fred Smoller, a political scientist at Chapman University. “He convinced people he was giving them what they wanted.”


Reagan was hardly the first – or the last – president to take actions that were contrary to his campaign pledges. Whether it’s Barack Obama vowing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility or George H.W. Bush saying, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a commander in chief who did everything he said he would.

“Presidents have high rates of trying to enact what they promised on the campaign trail, but what they’re able to do is much less,” said Lori Cox Han, a Chapman University political scientist specializing in the U.S. presidency. “People always blame the president, but the president has very little control over a lot of these issues.”

Click the photo to see some of Ronald Reagan’s most memorable quotes

Shifting circumstances and a competing congressional agenda are chief reasons for the discrepancies between promises and actions. Reagan stalwarts are quick to explain away the contradictions between his promises and what eventually happened.

Reagan won across-the-board income tax cuts the first year of his presidency but then oversaw unprecedented tax hikes the following year. Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian told KQED radio last week that the president felt he’d been misled, that there would be far greater budget cuts made.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, also was a Reagan speechwriter. He argues that taxes were lower when Reagan left office than when he entered it, despite 1982’s tax increase.

“I suspect Rohrabacher is right,” Han said. “The problem is when you look at tax rates, it depends on what brackets and types of taxes you look at. Everybody looks at it in a way that supports their point of view.”

One measure is the average income tax for those with the median income, which decreased over the span of Reagan’s presidency, according to calculations by the Tax Policy Center.

Since Reagan was working with a Democratic-controlled Congress, his principles were sometimes compromised by his pragmatic belief that getting something was better than getting nothing. And sometimes things just didn’t play out as hoped, like the immigration reform that gave amnesty to 3 million.

“Part of that program was a clamping down on employers and a tightening of the border,” Rohrabacher said. “But there was no enforcement of employers, and border security was not strengthened. As a result, there was a subsequent flood of millions more coming across the border. He got snookered on that.”

CLICK: How America has changed since Ronald Reagan was president

But at the end of the day, Reagan was a president who knew how to get things done, said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

“He was strongly ideological, but he had the ability to bring people in,” said Pitney, a GOP researcher in Washington during the Reagan presidency. “It’s not accurate to depict him as a moderate. But he was pragmatic. He brought in conservatives and moderates. It’s hard to see anybody with that skill today.”


Rohrabacher has no doubt that a candidate with Reagan’s record would be attacked in tonight’s debate.

“Any time politicians can make a surface analysis and use it to attack their opponents, they do,” he said.

But Sonenshein, unlike USC’s Jeffe, thinks Reagan could overcome those attacks and win the nomination.

“If he was running, he would be winning,” Sonenshein said. “He was an exceptionally skilled politician. He had a commanding presence. From a rhetorical standpoint, he was the best I’ve seen. (Donald) Trump, who is very quick with the insult, would have trouble with him. Reagan was very good at deflecting insults and sending them back in another form.

“The other candidates now take weeks to figure out how to respond. Reagan was a natural.”

Among Reagan’s successes was shifting spending from social services to the military, according to Sonenshein.

“Government kept growing, but it grew in ways Republicans wanted,” Sonenshein said. “The real difference between the parties is not the size of government so much as the role of government. Is it there to provide welfare or is a strong military a bigger priority?”

Sonenshein and Han agree that despite criticisms of his record, Reagan is responsible for the GOP’s ideology today.

“If Barry Goldwater was the grandfather of the modern Republican Party, Ronald Reagan was the father,” Han said. “He brought positions to a level of discussion at which they’d never been heard before. He made it part of the mainstream political debate.”

Contact the writer: mwisckol@ocregister.com; @MartinWisckol

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