Former President Ronald Reagan is often held up as a hero of the Republican Party. In GOP debates Reagan is regularly held up as the model conservative for others to follow. When examining their presidential candidates conservatives regularly ask who can be the “next Reagan.” However, recently Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) made news when he claimed that Reagan could not win the Republican nomination today (Video). As unbelievable as that claim may sound, a closer examination shows that Hunter may have been right.
Today a Republican candidate has to pass a number of strict litmus test in order to secure the needed votes of ultra-conservative voters. In 2010 some “moderates” like Mike Castle and Sue Lowden lost out to the “Tea Party” candidates who were willing to subscribe to more ideological extremes. Today’s Republican typically must be pro-life, pro-gun, and entirely opposed to any sort of increase in taxes. Any sort of increase in government size, even an apparently justified one, is frowned upon. For evidence one need look no further than Mitt Romney, who is currently struggling to convince voters he is a “real conservative” after signing a health care reform law in Massachusetts.
Reagan would likely face even more scrutiny than Romney based on his past. Before he was a politician Reagan was president of a union called the Screen Actors Guild. Imagine how Reagan would be painted by his conservative opponents today as a former leader of a “Hollywood liberals union.” As governor of California Reagan would later approve tax hikes in order to balance the state budget. Reagan also signed the “Therapeutic Abortions Act” which greatly increased access to abortions within the state. Finally, Reagan also signed the Family Law Act which made California the first “no fault divorce” state in the country, something that surely would be looked down upon by conservatives today.
President Reagan would have also likely been condemned by conservatives for his compromises on a number of issues. Reagan did lower taxes on the rich, but the overall rate of taxation went up from 18.1% of GDP to 18.2% of GDP in Reagan’s first term. Currently taxes make up 14.9% of GDP, and the Republicans in Congress are strongly objecting to any increases.
What really would have turned conservatives against Reagan is his immigration policy. President Reagan signed an immigration law which allowed for millions of undocumented immigrants to gain legal status or even citizenship. Today Reagan would undoubtedly be accused of granting “amnesty to illegals.”
Indeed, in surveying his record it is clear that the Reagan of 1980 or even 1984 would stand no chance in the race for the Republican nomination today. Ironically, the GOP’s historical hero would be utterly unelectable in a current day Republican primary.