Campaigning in former President Ronald Reagan's hometown before last week's Illinois primary, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum asserted that he was the only candidate "who stands on the pillars of what Ronald Reagan built as the modern Republican Party."
Speaking in the shadow of a statue of Reagan, Santorum proclaimed: "Let the voice of Reagan be heard across this land."
And it isn't just Santorum: During the Republican presidential debates, Reagan's name was invoked nearly 250 times by the GOP field.
But many historians argue that if Reagan had a true heir, he or she might raise taxes, compromise with Democrats and put aside the notion of taming the deficit during an economic downturn.
During his two terms in the White House in the '80s and as California's governor in the late '60s and early '70s, Reagan did all those things.
"I'm not sure how well Ronald Reagan would do in today's highly partisan environment," said Stephen Knott, an author of two books on Reagan and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. "If he tried to do today what he did in compromising on a budget dispute with House Democrats in 1982, he'd be crucified."
Indeed, the historical record clearly shows that Reagan was much more conciliatory, pragmatic and centrist than any of today's major GOP presidential candidates, who have proposed such things as deporting millions of illegal immigrants and limiting contraception as they vow not to raise taxes under any circumstances.
"Republicans are trying to use Ronald Reagan as a symbol for all the things he stood for," said George Lakoff, author of several books that show Republicans have been better than Democrats in framing political issues. "But they may be calling up an image that doesn't fit."
To be sure, Reagan is rightly remembered for his disdain of government -- perhaps the single feature of his presidency that animates today's Republicans. Immediately after being sworn in January 1981, Reagan said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
He also cast a baleful eye on welfare programs in a way that resonated with many Americans, often repeating the unsubstantiated story about the "welfare queen" who tooled around Chicago in a Cadillac.
Remnants of the catchphrase have seeped into this year's campaign, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accusing President Barack Obama of being the "food stamp president," a phrase critics say has the same not-so-subtle racial undertones that Reagan sometimes used to energize the right.
Gingrich has boasted he is the true heir to Reagan, claiming to be a key lieutenant of the president -- though he once accused Reagan of "trying to score a touchdown for liberalism, for the liberal welfare state" with his 1982 tax hike.
In his speech in Dixon, Ill., Santorum compared his outsider candidacy to Reagan's insurgency bid in 1976, when he challenged the GOP's establishment choice, President Gerald Ford. But a more apt analogy could be made between Reagan's re-election bid in 1984 and Obama's this year.
Both Reagan and Obama entered office facing the worst recessions since the Great Depression, with unemployment reaching historic numbers. But the economy brightened for Reagan, in time for his Morning in America campaign, and it seems to be turning around for Obama as he gears up his re-election campaign.
Obama has often been called a great communicator in the Reagan mold, inspiring Democrats with his "Change We Can Believe In" slogan. But the way he has governed -- at one point seeking a so-called Grand Bargain with Republicans -- has frustrated liberals who felt betrayed by his brand of compromise.
Reagan was also known for speaking one way and governing another.
In 1967, the first thing he did as California governor was raise taxes to fill a $500 million deficit left by his predecessor, Pat Brown. Later, he raised taxes by $2 billion to put together a $10 billion budget.
In his first year as governor, Reagan also signed the nation's most liberalized abortion law, saying at the time: "Liberalization of abortion laws is necessary." Later, when he ran for president, Reagan pivoted to the right in his attempt to expand the GOP base to include religious conservatives, becoming an anti-abortion candidate.
Bill Bagley, a San Rafael Republican who served in the Legislature from 1960 to 1974 and authored the second tax reform bill that Reagan signed, said the Reagan he knew is not the Reagan that contemporary Republicans imagine him to be.
"He was there to govern. When we needed revenue, he acceded and did the right thing," said Bagley, 84. "He was there every day, negotiating. Every once in a while he'd break into a joke, but he had the ability to keep things going."
Reagan "never went for the jugular, and he was far from being a conservative," Bagley added. "What's happened recently is the ideologues have taken over on the Republican side, both nationally and in California."
Reagan himself spoke of avoiding the pitfalls of ideological politics when he first became governor.
"We cannot offer (voters) a narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments," he told conservative activists. "Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it never puts into practice its basic tenets, no matter how noble they may be."
As president, Reagan jolted the nation by cutting the top income tax rate in half. But a year later, he signed a $37 billion tax increase, the largest in U.S. history -- bigger than President Bill Clinton's $30 billion increase in 1993. And that was followed with another major tax increase in 1986. Both were progressive taxes that put more of the burdens on the wealthy. In his two terms, he signed 11 tax hikes.
Reagan promised to balance the budget, but he tripled the national debt to a record $2.6 trillion by the time he left office.
Still, conservatives who decry deficits and refuse to entertain new taxes say they aren't bothered by Reagan's record.
They say that Reagan's key contribution was in making taxes and spending -- and a principled opposition to big government -- the cornerstone of modern American political debate.
"Taking the top rate from 70 percent to 35 makes up for a lot of sins," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "He had a great handle on the principles of limited government -- even if individual policies weren't a furtherance of his world vision."
Other conservatives are convinced Reagan wouldn't have raised taxes now and that he would have been beloved by the tea party.
"Most people are in love with the ideal of Ronald Reagan in broad terms," said Jon Fleischman, a former California Republican Party executive director who writes the conservative FlashReport blog. "Raising taxes is a legitimate part of his history. But as a practical matter, a great number of conservatives will first learn that Reagan signed tax increases when they read this story. It's just not a part of the narrative."
REAGAN'S RECORD AS PRESIDENT, GOVERNOR
--After cutting the top federal income tax rate from 70 percent to 35 percent in 1981, Reagan went on to sign the largest tax increase in history in 1982, as well as another significant hike in 1986.
--Federal spending under Reagan increased the deficit three-fold to a record $1.4 trillion by the end of his second term.
--He promised to eliminate entire departments of the federal government but didn't. Instead, he added one more, the Department of Veteran Affairs.
--He signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arsenals, upsetting such conservative stalwarts as George Will and William F. Buckley Jr.
--Instead of reforming Social Security as he'd vowed, he bailed it out with $165 billion in new funding -- and made Social Security taxes more progressive.
--As governor of California, his first act in 1967 was to raise taxes. That same year, he signed the most liberalized abortion law in the nation and the Lanterman Act, which created safeguards for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
--He created the Department of Consumer Affairs in 1969; signed a law limiting agricultural burning in 1970; and signed the California Clean Water Act of 1969.
--Bay Area News Group research
Most Popular Stories
- Dmytro Firtash, Ukrainian Billionaire, Arrested in Vienna
- Obama, Ukraine Discuss Russian Incursion in Crimea
- Obama's Overtime Initiative Praised, Condemned
- Republicans Warn Obama on Immigration
- Liberty Media Drops Sirius Bid
- Koch Brothers Step up Anti-Obamacare Campaign
- Calumet Photo Files for Bankruptcy
- FDIC Sues Big Banks Over Rate Manipulation
- Uli Hoeness, Bayern Munich President, Gets Prison for Tax Evasion
- West Readies Harsh Sanctions Against Russia