Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Liberals and the Book of Saint Reagan

Every now and again, you hear a liberal politician or pundit citing Ronald Reagan as a figure of moderation or good policy on points where he contrasts with the current Republican Party.

We have Bernie Sanders quoting Ronald Reagan's (accurate) statement that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.

We can see the Center for American Progress's blog ThinkProgress highlighting Ronald Reagan's statements on taxes here and here.  (TP has a very large number of Reagan citations of the sort.)  And we can see Obama embracing the same line here.

ThinkProgress also highlighted a quote in which Reagan called union organizing a "fundamental human right." But tell that to the air traffic controllers he warred against in his early presidency.  (TP spoke about Reagan's anti-unionism several months later.)

I've already seen Reagan mentioned several times in gun control articles because of his support for the Brady Bill.

Liberals seem to enjoy citing their points of agreement with Reagan to highlight the contradictions in the GOP hagiography of Saint Reagan.  However, who is the audience for this?  Since when did liberals start liking the president who ballooned the deficit through military spending while railing against "welfare queens"?  Hearkening back to Reagan as a time of GOP "moderation" seems hopelessly misguided; although he may have been willing to make deals with the Democratic House, he usurped power wherever he could--e.g. in his rather authoritarian handling of foreign policy.  Even if he raised taxes later on, he still drastically lowered marginal tax rates, creating a paradigm shift in taxation that will make it impossible to ever bring the top rate past 50%.  I can see no value in telling your liberal audience that a conservative President from three decades ago supported your policy du jour

However, if we agree that it doesn't make sense for liberals to praise Reagan to other liberals, then who is the real audience?  Certainly, there are not many Republicans--especially Tea Partiers--reading the ThinkProgress blog or looking at at the latest thing said by the social democrat in the Senate.  I can't see many Republicans suddenly thinking, "Oh, wow, I am going to scrap the ideology I've been holding for a while because you've told me that Reagan once said something that contradicts it."  The selective use of facts, quotes, and ideas that characterizes both political and religious hagiographies, and liberals are kidding themselves if they think anything other than that.  (You aren't going to convince a free market fundamentalist of the virtues of the welfare state just by citing the Sermon on the Mount or get a diehard social conservative to support marriage equality or tolerate abortion by highlighting the lack of prohibitions in the Bible.)  Such selective hagiography characterizes the liberal embrace of FDR as well. If I started hearing conservatives cite FDR for their own political aims, I'd be just as confused.

If anything, Reagan quoting  is a testament less less how far to the right the Republicans have moved than how far to the right the Democrats have moved-- that they need to cite Reagan as more liberal than not only the GOP Congress but also than the current Democratic president. 

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