Whatever Ever Became of the Reagan Democrat?

The 40th President restored hope to a doubting nation and went on to earn an historic, electoral landslide with the support of Republicans and Democrats.

With the recent celebration of The Gipper’s 100th Birthday, I was feeling a bit nostalgic for the “President of my Youth.”   With all the coverage surrounding Reagan, this one-time College Republican Campus President and Reagan-devotee was wondering if I’d ever see a return to an era of politics characterized by Reagan’s opitimistic style.

For years Democrats sought to nominate “the next JFK” for star power and to ensure electoral success.  Republicans find themselves in a similar position needing to find “the next Reagan.”  Notice I said “needing to” which is different from “wanting to.”  Why do I say that?  Because I am not sure today’s Republican Party would ever nominate Ronald Reagan if he was alive and in his prime today.

Simply put, Ronald Reagan wouldn’t pass the purity test.  Afterall, we’re talking about a man who supported an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union, was pro-immigrant and even supported so-called “amnesty” measures, and he was willing to work with members of the other party.  Reagan was hardly a liberal; he was at times the object of the far-left’s ire.  However, in a Tea Party-era where Republicans with strong conservative credentials are being targeted for “working with the enemy” this icon of American conservatism would find it tough to emerge from a pack of candidates seeking the GOP nomination for president.   Working with Tip O’Neil and Ted Kennedy will earn you a spot on someone’s Enemies List — most likely Sarah Palin’s.

Which leads me to the big problem facing the Republican Party today and the disappearance of a key component to Reagan’s political success:  The “Reagan Democrat.” 

They were typically blue collar, working class, union-members, Catholic,  pro-defense, and anti-abortion.  They weren’t “haters” of government.  They aspired for economic security and preservation of the middle class which was under assault by over-taxation.   Neither Jimmy Carter nor Walter Mondale provided a viable alternative to Reagan given the priorities of the Reagan Democrat voter.

But as we see things unfold in Wisconsin, I question how could a moderate/conservative Democrat possibly support today’s GOP?  A party that has historically been distrustful of government, now finds its members strategically dismantling people’s ability to collectively bargain with “the government.”  And sadly, this issue strayed from policy and became about politics. Wisconsin State Senator Scott Fitzgerald let the cat out of the bag in saying that by taking away workers’ rights to collectively bargain they were hampering unions’ ability to support President Obama in the 2012 election.  With attitudes and tactics like that, would the GOP ever be able to nominate a presidential candidate who didn’t support such measures? 

Full disclosure:  I am a registered Republican.  However, like the Reagan Democrat I’m feeling like I have no place to go.  As it relates to the National Parties’ platforms, my pro-life views on abortion make it difficult for me to support the Democratic Party.  At the same time, my pro-life views on capital punishment, poverty and race make it difficult to support the GOP.  My distaste for the growing concentration of power and wealth combined with corporatism’s attack on community make it difficult to support either party.

Reagan would often say, “I never left the Democratic Party, it left me.”  Sometimes I feel today’s GOP has done the same to a lot of Reagan Democrats and Republicans.  In a lot of ways, both parties abandoned the American voter.

What will the 2012 election cycle hold for us?  We’re about to find out.



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3 responses to “Whatever Ever Became of the Reagan Democrat?

  1. Jeff Eckles

    Great post, Jason. It’s so unfortunate that most of the American people sit in the middle to slightly right of the political spectrum, but the donation money sits on the fringes. I have no idea what it will take to get the two sides to work together again, but I think the majority of us are desperate for them to start.

  2. Lowell Ingram

    I really have to disagree with your estimation that Ronald Reagan’s position’s and actions would be out-of-line with the GOP as it exists today. In his 1986 negotiations with the Soviet Union, he was unwilling to give in on SDI testing, resulting in Gorbachev walking away from the talks. I recall the savage criticism brought by Reagan’s inflexibility on SDI.

    Watching the events unfolding in Wisconsin, we can’t forget Reagan’s willingness to confront PATCO in the face of their 1981 strike. In response to the public menace, Reagan was willing to use a nuclear option (maybe a figurative “tactical nuke”) that resulted in the mass firing of PATCO workers and the subsequent decertification.

    We watch the activities of organized labor in Wisconsin, and we clearly do not see the blue collar, working class, Catholic, pro-defense, and anti-abortion union-members. We have watched wildcat strikes, public school teachers dishonestly calling in sick, and at some point, we have to ask if these protesters don’t have jobs like the rest of us.

    In Illinois, during the “lame duck” session of the General Assembly, a massive tax increase was rammed through, that takes real money from families like mine and the employers that we work for. There have been no obvious sacrifices made by the State public employees, nor has there been any attempt to rectify the business environment that has limited payroll growth for employees in the private sector. In Illinois, we see what the public-sector unions will do unless they are confronted as they have been in Wisconsin.

    We have yet to see who benefits politically from the events in Wisconsin, but I have no doubt that Governor Walker and the Republicans in the Assembly are doing the right thing, as Reagan did when he confronted PATCO. I have to believe, that the Republican Party that nominated George Bush #41, George Bush #43, then John McCain would not find Ronald Reagan lacking in any conservative credentials.

  3. livedifferently

    Lowell: Thanks for your comments. I think you missed my point or perhaps I did not express myself more clearly. I believe that today’s GOP — or should I say, elements that the GOP is appeasing (Palin, Bachman, et al) — would likely find Reagan to be less conservative than their standards today. Hence, the term “purity test.” Robert Bennett getting bounced in Utah? Orrin Hatch being challenged? Governor Mitch Daniels’s candidacy is being questioned because he’s not giving priority to social issues or behaving like an idealogue. Perhaps the biggest farce is the candidacy of Mitt Romeny who all of sudden “found the light” and has come out with positions contrary to his behavior (and I’m not talking simply about Romney-Care). For a guy who gladly hired undocumented Guatemalens to clean his home and then rail against “illegal immigration” is the height of pandering to the fringe of our party.

    To your other point, I agree that Reagan rightly ordered PATCO back to work. It was a risk to public safety. I just disagree in the complete revocation of workers’ ability to collectively bargain. That’s all.

    You’re also correct the GOP that nominated Bush (41 & 43) along with Dole & McCain would not find Reagan lacking in conservative credentials. My point was that the party of today that is under the influence of a Tea Party movement would likely not find Reagan in lock-step with their values.

    I find myself inclined to support John Huntsman for president because he doesn’t hold the same xenophobic attitude toward immigrants, yet he has good conservative credentials and understands China which presents the biggest threat to our economic and national security. However, because Huntsman was Obama’s ambassador to China and his views on immigration and civil unions aren’t in-line with Tea Party dogma, he has about as much chance of securing the GOP nomination as Michelle Bachman does in winning a geography contest.

    As for Illinois, my heart goes out to you guys with Quinn and your legislature. I cannot speak to the state employee issue; however, I cannot believe they’ve had salary increases as of late. Then again, with Quinn I could be wrong.

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