Giving ‘Reagan Democrats’ new meaning

Yesterday, the House Democratic Caucus unveiled a video making the case for an increase in the debt ceiling, featuring one voice: Ronald Reagan’s.

The clip is an excerpt from one of Reagan’s presidential radio addresses, delivered in September 1987, condemning any effort to play games with the debt ceiling. The 40th president warned lawmakers about “default” and dangerous “brinkmanship,” before telling Congress, “The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations.”

Dana Milbank picked up on this to note that Democrats have adopted Reagan as their own, while Republicans deliberately reject the Reagan legacy.

Nobody knows what Reagan, who died in 2004, would make of the current fight over the debt limit. But 100 years after Reagan’s birth, it’s clear that the Tea Party Republicans have little regard for the policies of the president they claim to venerate.

Tea Party Republicans call a vote to raise the debt ceiling a threat to their very existence; Reagan presided over 18 increases in the debt ceiling during his presidency.

Tea Party Republicans say they would sooner default on the national debt than raise taxes; Reagan agreed to raise taxes 11 times.

Tea Party Republicans, in “cut, cap and balance” legislation on the House floor Tuesday, voted to cut government spending permanently to 18 percent of gross domestic product; under Reagan, spending was as high as 23.5 percent and never below 21.3 percent of GDP.

Indeed, the GOP agenda of 2011 — including spending caps and the Balanced Budget Amendment — would have made Reagan’s entire agenda impossible, including the military buildup that conservatives credit with winning the Cold War.

I continue to find this fascinating because of the striking disconnect between Republicans’ principles and their understanding of history. On the one hand, Republicans have a religious-like reverence for “Ronaldus Magnus”; on the other, they have no use for his approach to governance.

It’s comparable to evangelical Christians holding out Jesus as their model for salvation and perfection, only to ignore Jesus’ commitment to protecting the poor and less fortunate.

Wait, maybe that’s not the best comparison in this context.

Regardless, as Democrats embrace the Republican icon and Republicans turn their back on him, it’s time the mainstream starts to realize that this is no longer the party of Reagan.

The evidence has become overwhelming. Two weeks ago, a House Republican went so far as to dismiss Reagan as a “moderate, former liberal” who “would never be elected today.” Mike Huckabee said two months ago, “Ronald Reagan would have a very difficult, if not impossible, time being nominated in this atmosphere of the Republican Party.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had a nearly identical take last year, arguing Reagan “would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”

I agree, but shouldn’t that tell the political world something about the radicalism 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?

Dems are reveling in this. Indeed, just this morning, the House Democratic Caucus dropped off a letter at the office of every Republican lawmaker on Capitol Hill. The letter was from Reagan to then-Majority Leader Howard Baker — it’s dated November 16, 1983 — and it features the then-president’s plea for Congress to raise the debt ceiling and avoid “the full consequences of default.” It includes a message from today’s Democratic leaders, urging GOP officials to “take President Reagan’s message to heart.”

I never thought I’d see the day that progressive Democrats claimed Reagan’s mantle. I never thought I’d see the day that conservative Republicans let them.