Ronald Reagan remains the modern Republican Party’s most durable hero. His memory will be hailed as The Great Uncompromiser by those who insist the GOP must never flag in its support for smaller government, lower taxes and conservative social values.
His record tells a different story.
During Reagan’s eight years in the White House, the federal payroll grew by more than 300,000 workers. Although he was a net tax cutter who slashed individual income-tax rates, Reagan raised taxes about a dozen times.
His rhetoric matched that of many of today’s most ardent Christian conservatives, yet he proved to be a reluctant warrior on abortion and other social issues. Perhaps most tellingly, he was willing to cut deals, working closely with Democratic leaders such as House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts to overhaul Social Security and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois to revamp the tax code.
It isn’t that Reagan wasn’t a true believer. He was simply more complicated than that. “Reagan was a splendid politician,” said Lou Cannon, who has written five books about the 40th president. “He didn’t personally think compromise was bad. It’s what he did rather than what he said. He gave the right rhetoric but his policies were centrist.”
That willingness to compromise is what led former Florida Governor Jeb Bush to tell a group of Bloomberg editors in June that Reagan “would have a hard time” leading the Republican Party if it gets to a place where orthodoxy doesn’t allow for disagreement.