In his new book “The Working Class Republican,” a bracingly revisionist account of the 40th president, Henry Olsen answers “no.” One of the most astute political analysts at work today and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Olsen argues that Reagan’s politics bear the distinctive stamp of his origins as a New Deal Democrat.
Olsen’s interpretation of what he calls “Reagan’s New Deal conservatism” is open to dispute. But he undoubtedly is correct that contemporary conservative politicians do Reagan — and themselves — a disservice by remembering him as an unremitting ideologue and tactical maximalist.
As late as 1980, Reagan had still been a Democrat longer than he had been a Republican. As he put it, characteristically, in his 1984 acceptance speech, “Did I leave the Democratic Party, or did the leadership of that party leave not just me but millions of patriotic Democrats who believed in the principles and philosophy of that platform?”
With an eye to these sorts of voters throughout his career and with a sensibility attuned to their concerns, Reagan didn’t simply replicate the let-it-all-hang-out, high-octane conservatism of Barry Goldwater.
He never contested the idea that there should be a safety net. In his famous speech promoting Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, Reagan stipulated, “We’re for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we have accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.”
He promoted his program not as a function of conservative purity, but of sturdy common sense. “There’s no such thing as a left or a right,” he said in that same 1964 speech, “there’s only an up or down.”
He extolled the common man, “the forgotten American,” and his innate dignity. In his first inaugural address, Reagan hailed the “men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we’re sick — professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers.”
He didn’t support tax cuts for the rich so much as tax cuts for everyone, and didn’t obsess over entrepreneurship. According to Olsen, “Reagan mentioned the word ‘entrepreneur’ only once in all of his major campaign and presidential speeches on the economy between November 1979 and the passage of the tax-cut bill in July 1981.”
He had a pragmatic cast. In his campaign for governor of California, he noted that “public officials are elected primarily for one purpose — to solve public problems.” He never let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough for a working politician. Hostile to taxes, he raised them as governor of California in response to a budget crisis, and as president as part of a Social Security deal. A free-trader, he brushed back the Japanese on trade.
Reagan’s tone and program, coupled with his generational talent as a politician, allowed him to unlock the working-class vote in his races for governor and president. “The Reagan Democrat” has been part of our political vocabulary ever since. President Donald Trump is a very different man and politician, but it is telling how — not having learned the purported lessons of Reagan — he was able to go and get these voters in a way that Republican politicians bound by Reaganite truisms were not.
All that said, Reagan was hardly a friend of the welfare state. He said the ultimate source of the New Deal was Mussolini’s fascism. His foundational 1964 speech attacked farm programs, government planning, welfare, the size and power of bureaucracy, and regulations that “have cost us many of our constitutional safeguards.” He called for adding “voluntary features” to Social Security, and for electing Barry Goldwater to stop the advance of socialism.
Reagan was a constitutional conservative, although an exceptionally gifted one who understood how to meet Americans where they live. In this important book, Henry Olsen reminds us how.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.