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Ronald Reagan: the Original RINO

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I recall sitting in one of my economics classes in college, listening to one of my professors tell us that he was going to teach us what it truly means to be a conservative. As a conservative, my ears perked up and I was ready to hear what he had to say on the matter. He asked us “Is George W. Bush a conservative?” My immediate mental knee-jerk reaction was “Of course he is! Bush is pro-life. He’s a tax-cutter. He’s a Republican, for crying out loud.” But I said nothing and listened to my professor point out that while Bush had given America some great tax cuts, he had done nothing to rein in spending. In fact, throughout his administration, Bush never really seemed to see any spending that he didn’t like. I was forced to admit: while Bush had done many things that I agreed with, his failure to address spending made him an economic moderate at best.

Studying into the matter further, I found out that Reagan wasn’t incredibly different in his economic approach. Reagan cut taxes and even managed to increase federal revenue. But in exchange for tax cuts, he failed to lower spending significantly enough to avoid increasing the national deficit. To his credit, this certainly wasn’t something that he was pleased with.

But in today’s current political climate, in which the anti-establishment wing of the GOP and many in the TEA party are decrying the massive deficits (which are far worse than the ones achieved by Bush or Reagan) racked up by President Obama, I begin to wonder: if a candidate with Reagan’s record were running for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, would he be successful or would he be excoriated by those who claim to be “Reagan conservatives?”


In 1967, as governor of California, Reagan signed the Therapeutic Abortion Act, which resulted in approximately two million abortions. Reagan later regretted this decision and became staunchly pro-life in his political career. However, he did appoint Rudy Giuliani, who is pro-choice, as U.S. Attorney. Therefore, an individual like Reagan could not have signed the recent Susan B. Anthony List pledge without violating it. In today’s climate, Reagan would most likely be labelled a flip-flopper by some conservatives for his record on abortion.


Throughout his administration, Reagan achieved mostly great economic success. In fact, he actually managed to decrease the growth rate of federal spending from 4 percent to 2.5 percent. And overall, the unemployment rate went down from 7.1 percent to 5.5 percent. But unfortunately, the national debt nearly tripled under his administration, which Reagan later referred to as the “greatest disappointment” of his presidency. This begs the question: would someone with Reagan’s record today be criticized for the massive deficits incurred under his administration, in spite of his other important economic achievements?

Mandate for Healthcare?

In the United States,  as mandated by the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act with some exceptions, hospitals are legally required to render care to an individual regardless of their legal status, citizenship or ability to pay. This legislation was signed into law by Reagan in 1986. In spite of its fortunate provision for those requiring care, it does create a certain complication for a free market system. From a strictly economic point of view, this law legally requires a business to render a service regardless of the consumer’s ability to afford said service. The question is: would the noble intentions of a federal mandate be eclipsed by its effect on the free market system in the eyes of the anti-establishment crowd?

Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants

In 1986, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law. Among other things, this legislation granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants. This bill set a precedent that paved the way for bills like the McCain-Kennedy bill, which also would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Would a candidate like Reagan in 2011 be criticized by conservatives for his record on illegal immigration?

RINO or Bridge-builder?

This article isn’t meant to denigrate Reagan or belittle his legacy; far from it! As he is for many conservatives, Ronald Reagan is my favorite president. But one of the great things about Ronald Reagan is that he brought America together. He worked with a Democrat-controlled legislature to lower taxes and usher in a period of profound economic growth and stability.

From the depths of malaise in the Carter administration, Reagan managed to restore optimism and pride in America. He appealed to Republicans and Democrats alike, a characteristic which the Republican 2012 contenders should all note. The targets should be failed policies and troubling agendas, not friends and allies who agree with us on most of the issues. After all, Reagan himself once said that “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.” He also believed in the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

Someone with Reagan’s record today might be easily stuck with the moniker of “RINO,” meaning “Republican In Name Only.” But if I’m forced to choose between a RINO like Reagan and an Obama like Carter, I think I’ll take my chances with the RINO. 

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About Braden

  • Baronius

    Braden – Interesting article.

    Reagan was criticized from the right for a lot of the things you mentioned. However, as Peggy Noonan pointed out, Reagan knew that couldn’t be out-conservatived because he was the personification of conservatism. In fact, the existence of a more extreme position put him in a better position to compromise.

    There are two parts of the conservative agenda that you didn’t put in your article: anti-Communism and strict constructionism. It’s interesting that Reagan marked the end of the first and the beginning of the second. It’s hard to imagine conservatism as it existed in 1980, but there was not much of a paleo/neo divide, and Supreme Court traditionalism had been dead for a good 30 years.

    I think Reagan would receive a solid B on his conservatism. Huge accomplishments in tax policy and international affairs; credible conversion on abortion with real follow-through; very little success with the federal bureaucracy.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

    I don’t take issue with some of what you said – I’ve long held Reagan to be one of our greatest presidents. He did bring our military and our nation out of its post-Vietnam funk and, most importantly, he won the Cold War. That last in and of itself was the greatest threat our nation and our civilization has ever faced, and is more than enough reason to call him one of our greatest presidents.

    That said, you’re waaaaaaaaay off the mark when it comes to economics. Reagan never concerned himself with keeping spending under control – remember what Dick Cheney said: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

    And you think Obama’s caused the present huge deficit – here’s some food for thought, Braden: the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the illegal Iraq war, and Medicare Part D EACH cost the American taxpayer more than Obama’s stimulus package.

    That’s right – the stimulus package (which is credited by most economists for keeping us out of a depression) was cheaper than ANY of those three Bush Boondoggles. The REASON the deficit is so high, FYI, is not because the federal government’s spending…but because of the massive DROP in tax revenue due to the Great Recession.

    You can see it in this chart – the deficit skyrocketed even though spending did NOT.

    And I suggest you educate yourself on the impact of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy – which (unlike the claims of conservative dogma) not only did not increase tax revenue, but blew a massive hole in the surplus that Clinton handed over to Bush in January of 2001…the surplus that would have paid off our ENTIRE national debt by 2012.

    “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” I guess deficits only matter when it’s a Democrat who’s in the White House.

    One last question, Braden – when was the last time ANY Republican president had a budget with a surplus? Hint: the top marginal tax rate at the time was ninety percent.

  • Arch Conservative

    Wait………so what’s the difference between a RINO and a Neocon again?

    I’m getting some of both of them co-opting the future of this nation and the definition of “conservative.”

  • Costello

    Braden forgot to score how conservatives would feel towards a President who made secret deals with terrorists. Seems like a negative.

    Glenn, how does a rapid lib fall for the propaganda that Reagan “won” the Cold War? Read some books on European history and educate yourself

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Costello –

    I’m retired military – which means that I believe that the guy in charge gets all the blame and all the kudos for what happens on his watch.

  • Costello

    Was Reagan in charge of the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland or any Eastern European country? The whole thing imploded. I got to see it up close. Try thinking outside your binary mindset

  • Leroy

    Reagans saber-rattling prolonged the cold war about 2 years according to Russian historians.

  • zingzing

    frankly, the thing that surprised me the most is that braden had a conservative teacher, or that conservative thought was even addressed at his liberal hive of a university.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Costello and Leroy –

    Historically speaking, when a nation implodes is a very dangerous time, one in which wars are not uncommon. He deserves the credit.

  • Actually a number of people deserve the credit, like the Pope. You agreed to it a while back so it’s odd to see that you are back to giving Reagan sole credit. History shows he doesn’t deserve it.

  • Braden

    ZingZing, oh how well you know me and the school I went to… Or maybe you were just being sarcastic. Yes, that would explain it.

  • Clavos

    Reagans saber-rattling prolonged the cold war about 2 years according to Russian historians.

    Ha! Russian historians!! Russia, where the practice of historical revisionism has been elevated to an art.

  • Braden’s larger point, intentional or not, is that the GOP is now controlled by its most radical fringe. There is no such thing as a moderate Republican any more. Whereas ‘moderate’ [i.e. conservative] Democrats are very much a presence in Congress and in White House policy. [Conservatives who find that assertion ridiculous have already joined their own radical fringe, with its strict litmus test for every issue.]

  • Baronius

    “Conservatives who find that assertion ridiculous have already joined their own radical fringe”

    The well, she is poisoned, no? A person can’t disagree with Handy’s analysis without being a wacko? The Blue Dog coalition went from 54 seats to 26 in the last election.

  • zingzing

    yes, braden, i was being sarcastic.

    “Russia, where the practice of historical revisionism has been elevated to an art.”

    it’s like texas!

  • I would think you’d be proud to be part of the rightmost fringe, Mr. B. I didn’t say ‘wacko,’ just way over to one side.

    Many conservative Dem House districts did go GOP in 2010. Some will probably go back in 2012. But those seats were won by Dems in the first place by running moderate/conservative candidates. In the Senate, there are far more ‘moderate’ Dems than ‘moderate’ Republicans.

    If there were more Scott Browns and Susan Collinses, the world would be a less dispiriting place. They vote moderately in large part to keep their seats, and that’s fine. [If Collins or Olympia Snowe get tired of the more strident voices in the GOP and turn independent or even Dem, I could handle that too.]