On Real Time last Friday, Bill Maher claimed that Ronald Reagan was the original Teabagger. It’s a funny bit that’s worth watching. It highlights some problematic liberal mythology. But it doesn’t actually attack what many people mean when they say that Reagan wouldn’t fit into the modern Republican Party.
Politics is relative, and Maher is right to point this out with regards to tax policy. Reagan may have raised taxes from time to time, but the main thing he did was cut the taxes of the rich in half. Modern Republicans would likely tinker with new taxes too if the Democrats would allow them to cut the top tax rate to 20%. But the more fundamental issue is how Reagan would act if he were on the radio or in the White House right now. And there is no doubt: he would be the conservative populist he always was. So he would be a Tea Party leader. There is no question of that.
A more interesting question is where Nixon would stand in the modern environment. He was not ideological in the sense that Reagan was. But there is no doubt that he was a cultural conservative. However, his neuroses were so extreme, that they could have taken him in any direction. And I have a hard time imagining him in the context of the ideological extremism of the Tea Party. I don’t think he would have felt comfortable there.
Another part of this—certainly for Obama when he quotes and otherwise refers to Reagan—is the tendency for one party to look back fondly at past leaders of the opposition. The Republicans do this with Clinton—a man they seriously accused of murder when he was in office. This is the part of Maher’s rant that is most important. Obama should be saying that Reagan is the man who first got this country way off the tracks. He should not treat Reagan as a hero because the people of the United States and the greater cause of liberalism have been terribly hurt by Reagan. The problem is that Obama pretty much agrees with Reagan’s positions. Like most New Democrats, he just wants to take conservative ideas and implement them better. See, for example, the last four and a half years.
When I, and I think others, compare the modern Republican Party to Reagan (which I rarely do) or Nixon, it isn’t to say that they would be different from modern Republicans if they were in politics today. Rather, it is a claim about the changes in the party itself. Primarily, it is a claim that at one time the Republican Party was actually interested in government. It is a claim that the Republicans have moved from a normal political party to a revolutionary party. But it is because I know just how radical Reagan was that I normally hearken back to Nixon. Because Maher is right: Reagan really was the start of this Tea Party nonsense.