THE ACTUAL SOFT-ON-TERROR WHITE HOUSE…. In some circles, a simple, four-word phrase ends all debate: “Do what Reagan did.” It’s a maxim that tends to be far more effective with conservative activists who don’t really know as much about the Reagan administration as they think they do — folks, for example, who don’t realize that Reagan raised taxes in almost every year of his presidency — but which nevertheless holds sway with most Republicans.

It’s especially interesting, then, to consider Reagan’s approach to terrorism. Scott Horton noted that Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture, and his Justice Department indicted and prosecuted a Texas sheriff for waterboarding. Horton asked Will Bunch, author of “Tear Down This Myth,” about reconciling Reagan’s inerrant record with the current GOP line. (via Paul Campos)

It’s important not to nominate Reagan for sainthood in the arena of human rights. His “Reagan Doctrine” in Central America, leaving the fight to anti-Communist thugs and death squads that the then-president called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers,” is arguably the gravest moral failing of his tenure. That said, back on U.S. soil, Reagan was far to the left of the 2010 Republican Party on issues such as torture. The convention that he signed in 1988 holds that there is no circumstance of any kind that permits torture, which certainly would include the 9/11 aftermath and related anti-terror efforts today.

But it goes even deeper than that. As I noted in an early 2010 blog post: “Reagan would not have approved of drone-fired missile attacks aimed at killing terrorists; as president, he several times rejected anti-terrorism operations for the sole reason that civilians would have been killed by collateral damage. In 1985, he surprised aides such as Pat Buchanan by ruling out a military response to a Beirut hijacking for fear of civilian casualties; Lou Cannon reported then in the Washington Post that Reagan called retaliation in which innocent civilians are killed “itself a terrorist act.” And the idea of trying terrorists in military tribunals as opposed to a civilian court of law? The Reagan administration was completely against that. Paul Bremer (yes, that Paul Bremer) said in 1987, “a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are — criminals — and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law, against them.”

Try to imagine the reaction if President Obama repeated Reagan’s position now.

Just so we’re clear, by the standards of Republicans in 2010, George W. Bush was weak on terrorism, and Ronald Reagan’s perspective was about as liberal as that of the House Democrats’ Progressive Caucus.

I suspect the response from the Cheney contingent is that Reagan’s approach seems like that of a radical leftist now, but that’s only because he was president before 9/11. Perhaps. But let’s not forget that Reagan withdrew from Beirut in 1983 — a decision Dick Cheney later mocked and blamed for emboldening terrorists.

Republicans just keep moving further and further to the right, so much so that even Ronaldus Magnus looks pretty liberal by comparison.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.