Adopting the Gipper

Michael Scherer noted the other day that Democrats “just can’t get enough of Ronald Reagan these days.” That’s true, but can you blame them?

He is a role model for President Obama, a liberal policy foil in the tax fight debate and a historical marker for campaign strategists. Reagan even gets applause at Democratic National Committee fundraisers. “There’s been a clip floating around lately on television talking about this radical guy who made the simple point that a bus driver should be paying lower tax rates than a millionaire,” President Obama said Tuesday night at a money event in St. Louis. “And this rabble-rouser was named Ronald Reagan.”

Read that again: Ronald Reagan, rabble-rouser. There is sarcasm, to be sure, but don’t be shocked if a variation of that phrase shows up at union rallies or on 2012 Democratic National Convention buttons. The Gipper is now a liberal savior.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way. The point of the left’s embrace of Ronaldus Magnus isn’t that the Republican icon is a center-left RINO — though that’s probably what the Republican base would consider him under contemporary standards — but that that Reagan stands out as the kind of Republican leader who’s gone missing in 2011. If any of those who claim to profess their love of the former president actually agreed with the former president, Washington would still be capable of functioning.

In other words, the point is that the “Party of Reagan” has rather deliberately abandoned the Reagan legacy, making plain what the political establishment is too often reluctant to acknowledge: this is a radicalized GOP that Reagan wouldn’t even recognize.

The ongoing fight over tax fairness only helps drive the larger point home. Reagan thought it was “crazy” for millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than bus drivers, and used rhetoric today’s Republicans consider offensive class warfare. If Barack Obama read Reagan’s 1985 remarks word for word today, the president would immediately be condemned as a socialist by many Republican officials and media personalities.

But Scherer’s also right about the frequency with which this comes up. For example, this came up quite a bit in July when Democrats, not Republicans, tied themselves to the Reagan legacy, noting that the GOP icon raised the debt ceiling 18 times, whereas today’s Republican officials consider a vote to raise the debt ceiling an “existential crisis.” To keep the budget deficit from spiraling out of control, Reagan also raised taxes 11 times, a step today’s Republicans consider fundamentally out of the question.

Indeed, the GOP agenda of 2011 — most notably the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan — would have made Reagan’s entire agenda impossible, including the military buildup that conservatives credit with winning the Cold War. Asked about the disconnect, Republican leaders generally prefer not to talk about it.

The key takeaway here isn’t to marvel at how often Obama and Dems are on the same page as Reagan; the point is to look at this from the other direction, and appreciate the ideological state of today’s GOP. What should Republicans take away from the fact that, by 2011 standards, their party would dismiss their demigod as a tax-raising, amnesty-loving, pro-bailout, cut-and-run, big-government Democrat?

Democrats “just can’t get enough of Ronald Reagan these days,” but that’s only because Republicans are the Party of Reagan no more.