Ever since Jeb Bush made comments insinuating that former President (and current conservative deity) Ronald Reagan would have trouble fitting into the current Republican Party, the blogsophere has speculated on if that was a true statement or not.
On the surface, Bush has a debatable point. Ronald Reagan did some things that modern-day conservatives protest against including his disgust of nuclear weapons and his tax increases. Reagan also would’ve likely received conservative backlash over his 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act which “granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to Jan. 1, 1982“. In fact, I would not have been surprised to see his signing of it in an attack ad during this past GOP primary season.
But, the question remains; would Ronald Reagan have fit in to the Republican Party of 2012. The answer is a resounding and unequivocal yes, though not because of what he accomplished but rather what he would have likely done.
Ronald Reagan emerged onto the national political scene in 1966 when he successfully beat incumbent Pat Brown and was elected Governor of California. Reagan’s election was during a turbulent time in American history in which racial tensions were at a high point, including the town of Watts in Southern Los Angeles.
Reagan, in something that is often forgotten about, had a contested primary against a man named George Christopher who was at the time, the former Mayor of San Francisco. Christopher was best known amongst the California electorate for his pro-civil rights stance and for defending San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays who faced racial discrimination in trying to purchase a house.
The primary wasn’t exactly close (Reagan won with nearly two-thirds of the vote) but to appeal to conservatives, Reagan had to walk an extremely fine line between conservatism and extremism.
The John Birch Society, a noted anti-communist group founded by Robert Welch Jr., was the Club for Growth on steroids of the 1950s and 60s. While Republicans didn’t want to openly associate themselves with them, they certainly didn’t want to offend them either.
Reagan would state that he would not buy the philosophy of the “Birchers” but would like to have their support anyway. Fair enough, right? Most politicians, even to this date, keep their distance from various groups without outright offending them.
But what Reagan and the Birchers definitely had in common were capitalizing on the fears of a nation of a Communist takeover. As a 2002 article in the San Francisco Gate explained:
Reagan had campaigned for Nixon against John F. Kennedy in 1960. The following year, Reagan told a conference of food executives in Chicago that the Communist Party “has ordered once again the infiltration” of the movie industry. “They are crawling out from under the rocks,” he declared.
When [J.Edgar] Hoover saw a news story about Reagan’s speech, he dispatched agents to question him. But the bureau’s former informer backpedaled, admitting that he had no “first-hand information” about current subversives in Hollywood.
In 1962, Reagan raised money for a Southern California Republican congressman and John Birch Society member, John Rousselot.
That year, Reagan, as host of “General Electric Theater,” produced a two-part television special about Marion Miller, who had infiltrated the Communist Party for the FBI and told all in a book, “I Was a Spy: The Story of a Brave Housewife.”
Later in 1962, General Electric dropped Reagan from his $150,000 per year job as company representative, concluding his speeches had become too politically extreme
Nevertheless, as you saw Reagan would backpedal from his “Communists in Hollywood” claim and didn’t mention it again in future speeches.
But Reagan’s association with the Birchers were always at arms length away, but still prevalent. Rumors of him being a former member of the group were never substantiated but the claims persisted even as Reagan defeated Pat Brown and 14 years later, became President.
However, Reagan’s charisma and grandfatherly appeal resonated with plenty of Americans and he almost had a teflon quality in terms of political attacks. He overcame charges of “right-wing extremism” that dogged him early in his campaign and successfully painted himself as a fresh face in politics.
So would Ronald Reagan fit into the GOP today, in the age of SuperPACs and the 24-hour news cycle? Given his Hollywood connections (assuming he followed the same career arc) and personal appeal, it seems that Reagan would’ve just ran further to the right….just like John McCain did and just like Mitt Romney has done.