President Obama caused a minor stir last month in a speech at the Associated Press luncheon, when he argued, "Ronald Reagan ... could not get through a Republican primary today."
This sparked some worthwhile discussion, but I've been especially struck by the number of Republicans who agree with the argument.
The Republican Party has drifted so far to the right and become so partisan in recent years that President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even want to be a part of it, former Nebraska GOP senator Chuck Hagel told The Cable.
"Reagan would be stunned by the party today," Hagel said in a long interview in his office at Georgetown University, where he now teaches. He also serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Reagan wanted to do away with nuclear weapons, raised taxes, made deals with congressional Democrats, sought compromises and consensus to fix problems, and surrounded himself with moderates as well as Republican hard-liners, Hagel noted. None of that is characterized by the current GOP leadership, he said.
Hagel added that there were similar divisions in the early 1950s between Eisenhower Republicans and GOP extremists like Joe McCarthy, but the difference is, in 2012, "the extremists are winning."
Remember, Hagel's voting record in the Senate wasn't exactly Olympia Snowe's -- this guy's a conservative from a reliably-"red" state. And yet, he believes Reagan "wouldn't identify with this party."
A few weeks ago, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) said the same thing. What's more, Mike Huckabee said a year 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 in 2010, arguing Reagan "would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today."
I continue to believe this matters.
As we discussed a while back, Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times, and he supported the precursor to the Buffett Rule. In his first term, Reagan raised taxes when unemployment was nearing 11% -- imagine trying this today -- and proceeded to raise taxes seven out of the eight years he was in office. It's a fact the right finds terribly inconvenient, but "no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people" as Reagan.
Reagan gave amnesty to undocumented immigrants, expanded the size of the federal government, tripled the deficit and added trillions to the debt, bailed out domestic industries, and called for a world without nuclear weapons. Reagan also met with our most hated enemy without preconditions, criticized Israel, and illegally funneled arms to Iran.
And then there's his gubernatorial record: in California, Reagan increased spending, raised taxes, helped create the nation's first state-based emissions standards, signed an abortion-rights bill, and expanded the nation's largest state-based Medicaid program (socialized medicine).
Reagan "could not get through a Republican primary today"? Reagan could not get through a Republican primary without being laughed off the stage today.
And why is this relevant today? For one thing, it's at least interesting to appreciate the fact that Republicans have a religious-like reverence for Reagan, they have no use for his approach to governance.
But more importantly, it should tell the American mainstream something important when the GOP moves so far to the ideological extreme that it's no longer the Party of Reagan.