Why the Tea Party Forgives Reagan’s Sins

8 minute read

When David Knittle decided to form a local Tea Party group in 2009, he knew exactly what to call it. Like many conservatives, he describes himself as a Reagan Republican. “Ronald Reagan represents to me all that is great about America,” he says. To Knittle, a Los Angeles–area health-care worker in his mid-50s, the Tea Party embodied the same set of values that Reagan espoused: sound economic policy, lower taxes, smaller government and more individual freedom. And so he dubbed the group Reagan’s Regiments—a title coined by Reagan himself, who bequeathed it to his army of supporters in his 1989 farewell address.

The homage was hardly surprising. Ten years after his death, Ronald Reagan remains the closest thing the Republican Party has to a secular saint. As the GOP struggles to chart a course back to the White House, Reagan is its lodestar, one of the few leaders on whose greatness the party’s fractious factions can agree. That view is shared in the Tea Party movement, a constellation of grassroots organizations that tend to regard most elected Republicans as only marginally better than Democrats. When the movement began brewing in 2009, Reagan’s name, image and famous adages about the evils of big government became as ubiquitous at Tea Party rallies as tricorn hats and Gadsden flags.

“He was the Tea Party of his time,” Michael Reagan, one of the president’s sons, declared in 2010. “He would have been at the forefront of the Tea Party movement, urging it on and devoting every last ounce of his energy to its progress in restoring America.”

Perhaps, but if Reagan were to take the measure of the Tea Party in 2014, he might conceivably turn and flee. Conversely, the Tea Party’s continuing idolatry of Reagan is somewhat curious. At one time or another, the 40th president smashed nearly every commandment the conservative movement regards as sacred. A closer look at Reagan’s time in office would suggest that he is a less-than-ideal fit for a sometimes rigid political movement that is willing to allow the government to shut down when its demands aren’t met.

Consider Reagan’s record on what the Tea Party holds most dear. He proposed the largest tax hike by any governor in the history of the United States. As president, he raised taxes 11 times, never submitted a balanced-budget request, hiked the debt ceiling 18 times and bemoaned the congressional brinkmanship that “consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility.” Plus, the federal deficit nearly tripled.

The apostasies aren’t just fiscal. Reagan was a onetime union leader who extolled the virtues of collective bargaining. As governor of California, he championed environmental legislation and signed a bill making it easier to get an abortion. The only U.S. president to divorce, he incensed the Christian right by nominating a socially moderate judge, the future swing vote Sandra Day O’Connor, to serve on the Supreme Court. He cut sweeping deals with liberal legislators like Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House. He signed a major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system that ultimately granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants.

All these moves are anathema to the Tea Party movement. “There’s a kind of delusional quality in the Tea Party’s affinity for Reagan,” says Matthew Dallek, author of the 2000 book The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics. “Certainly Reagan governed in a way that the Tea Party, to the extent they’re true to their beliefs, would probably find abhorrent.”

Even some Tea Party members who came of age under Reagan and consider him a great president are puzzled by the way he’s worshipped. “There’s an irony in the idolization of Reagan,” admits Ned Ryun, a conservative strategist and the president of American Majority, a group that trains Tea Party activists how to run for local office. “He would be considered today a very, very soft conservative—if not a moderate.”

That’s a far cry from Reagan’s reputation during his rise to power, when he was regarded by many as an archconservative ideologue. But the party has lurched rightward during Barack Obama’s presidency. Today, in a modern Republican nominating contest dominated by activists who prize purity and punish compromise, Reagan’s record might work against him. One marker of the GOP’s evolution came during a Republican presidential debate in 2011, when the eight candidates arrayed onstage were asked whether they would accept a deal of $10 in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increases. Each vowed to turn it down. The crowd erupted in applause.

So why does the Tea Party venerate Reagan, who violated so many of its values? Part of it, say Tea Party activists, was his matchless ability to market conservatism to the masses. He was an unabashed believer in the tenets of American exceptionalism, individual initiative and the free market—and enumerated their merits with the fervor of the converted. Nor, supporters say, would he back away from his beliefs. After Barry Goldwater’s drubbing in 1964, most political observers pronounced conservatism dead. Reagan built a coalition out of its ashes.

“That’s the kind of stuff that makes Reagan such an icon for the Tea Party movement,” says Jeff Reynolds, a Republican political consultant and chairman of the Portland-based Oregon Tea Party. “He talked passionately and eloquently about conservatism and the values that make America great. If you’re looking for somebody who espouses the conservative ideal and articulates why more government is a bad thing, there’s virtually nobody better.”

Reagan is admired for many qualities, one of which is simply that the public loves a winner, and he piled up plenty of impressive, and even historic, victories. In 1980 and 1984, he authored two electoral blowouts. He is also credited with winning the Cold War, the epic struggle of the second half of the 20th century, without firing a shot. At a moment of dwindling national morale, he toppled a seemingly ascendant communist threat.

“President Reagan understood that weakness is an invitation to war,” says Republican senator Ted Cruz. The Texan, part of a new generation of Tea Party icons, might find fault with some of Reagan’s domestic accomplishments, but he says he patterns his own foreign policy after the 40th president’s “peace through strength” credo. “The surest way to avoid war is to be strong enough to defend yourself,” Cruz says. “And by rebuilding our defense and speaking the truth, Reagan accomplished, in concert with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, the most extraordinary victory for peace in centuries.”

During the early phases of his career, the Republican establishment derided Reagan as a dangerous extremist. A former actor from outside the party’s clubby confines, he was widely viewed as inexperienced. In 1976 he had the temerity to challenge a sitting president from his own party, running to the right of incumbent Gerald Ford. He lost, but in the process proved that the country had a taste for his flavor of conservatism. And there is no question that the Tea Party sees in Reagan’s career a narrative arc it would like to repeat. “Members of the Tea Party would love to see themselves as rebels who are reviled by the mainstream,” says Dallek, the historian, “but who herald the American future.”

Tea Partyers who take a textured view of Reagan’s shortcomings are willing to give him a pass. They note that his deficit spending came during the military buildup of the Cold War, and at a time when the national debt was smaller; that his tax hikes were offset by cuts; that compromise is a necessary part of divided government. “You don’t get everything you want as a president,” says Knittle, the founder of Reagan’s Regiments.

“His record is not as conservative as it could have been, and there are certainly issues on which we disagree,” says Reynolds. “But you always want to look at the big picture instead of nitpicking over issues. Reagan wasn’t afraid to be conservative on the stump. He didn’t moderate his views. He didn’t sell out his ideals. He found a way to express conservative principles in a way that won people over.”

And that includes members of the Tea Party, who have demonstrated that they hold those who refuse to sell out in the highest regard and will likely remain loyal to Reagan’s memory—at least until a more strident conservative ascends to the White House.

This essay originally appeared in Reagan: His Political Life and Lasting Legacy.

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com