Misappropriating Ronald Reagan: Liberals Use Conservative Icon to Promote Agenda

Once upon a time, liberals didn’t much like Ronald Reagan – his policies, his ideology or even just because they thought he was a lousy executive and an “amiable dunce.”

"The Tower commission did not find Reagan a lousy orator; they found him a lousy president," Rep. Barney Frank said of Reagan to Time magazine in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra Affair in 1987.

And more recently, those on the left, and also some on the right, have declared the era of Reagan over for the Republican Party – a point more rational voices on the right aren’t willing to concede.

So why are some supporters of liberal causes attempting to co-opt Reagan to promote their own ideals?

Asking “WWRD?” (“What would Reagan do?”) is becoming a trend on myriad issues, including global warming alarmism, health care legislation, attacks on the Tea Party movement and, surprisingly, liberal pundits seeking to put the best face on President Barack Obama’s leadership.

Reagan a ‘Climate Champion’?

Imagine a scenario where former Vice President Al Gore and Reagan would team up for a common cause. Doesn’t sound at all plausible, unless you’re buying into a campaign that a group called Republicans for Environmental Protection is trying to promote.

On their Web site, ClimateConservative.com, visitors can find a number of radio spots the group is airing during the Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck programs on stations in New Hampshire. These ads suggest Reagan would have been all about combating the so-called threat of manmade global warming.

“Reagan knew that good stewardship is a conservative value,” the announcer says in one ad after a Reagan speech. “Scientists found chemicals were depleting the earth’s ozone layer. Reagan pushed through the treaty that fixed the problem. He ignored radio pundits who claimed ozone depletion wasn’t real. Today, scientists warn that heat-trapping pollution is dangerously altering our climate. Once again, some want us to ignore the problem, but that would endanger our children’s future – contrary to the conservative values Reagan stood for. It’s time to ask, what would Reagan do?”

The other two ads convey the same message to suggest Reagan would have been on board reacting to climate change alarmism with domestic policies that wouldn’t necessarily translate into solving this supposed problem and would cripple the U.S. economy. However, according to John D. Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, that’s speculation, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario Reagan would be on board an economy-challenging obstacle like cap and trade.

“I know that, particularly in this economic climate, he would want to promote policies that protect our environment in a way that doesn't cost us jobs or place an unfair burden on the U.S. taxpayer,” Heubusch said to the April 3 Los Angeles Times, reacting to the ad.


The Gipper Against the Tea Parties?

Ron Reagan, one of the sons of the former president, is a liberal whose political views that are very different from his father’s. For whatever reason, the younger Reagan didn’t seem to think his father would have been on board with a movement that advocates for smaller government, one of the fundamental tenets of Reagan-style conservatism.

Back on HLN’s Jan. 26 “The Joy Behar Show,” host Joy Behar asked Ron Reagan what his father would have thought about the modern tea party movement. Ron said that his father, the conservative icon wouldn’t have looked upon the Tea Party movement favorably.

“Oh, I think he would be unamused by the tea partiers with their Hitler signs and all the rest of it. No, I don’t think he’d be cottoning to that much at all,” Reagan replied.

That curious claim is counter to what the elder Reagan wrote in the Dec. 7, 1973 issue of National Review. In that article, Reagan clearly laid out the stakes as he saw them in the battle against bloated government and massive taxation, writing, “[the idea of limited government] must prevail because if it does not, the free society we have known for two hundred years, the ideal of a government by consent of the governed, will simply cease to exist."

As Reagan’s other son, Michael Reagan recently explained to the Business & Media Institute, the 40th president would have been a staunch advocate of the Tea Party movement.

“I think that my father would have been supportive of a grassroots movement, as he was always supportive of grassroots movements, you know, in this country,” Michael Reagan said. “I mean, people need to remember without the grassroots, Ronald Reagan probably doesn’t become president of the United States of America and he worked the grassroots on a regular basis during his political career, and especially between the years of 1976 and 1980 after the loss in Kansas City.”


Obama: The Next Reagan?

Since his death in 2004 – and despite all the hostile coverage he has got from the media during his presidency – Reagan is often compared to his ideologically opposite successor President Barack Obama, who has been shown to be a media darling.

Newsweek senior Washington correspondent and MSNBC regular Howard Fineman spoke glowingly of the similarities between Reagan and Obama in the Nov. 30, 2009, issue of Newsweek:

There are some remarkable affinities, personal and historical. Like Reagan, Obama shares a celebrity's sense of comfort on the (public) stage, a belief in sticking to the script, and a faith in the power of the written word spoken from an imposing rostrum. He also shares Reagan's reverence for the power of a narrative in politics – Reagan, because he was an actor; Obama, because he is a writer. Obama came of age politically when he arrived on the mainland in the Reagan years.

He watched Reagan attack with bold ideas the Carter era's sense of hopelessness and ‘malaise’; saw him and his party get hammered in the first midterm election in 1982; saw him, during a severe economic downturn, rebound to a sweeping second-term ‘morning in America’ victory in 1984.Around the White House right now – beset by a weak economy and dire midterm election prospects – the story of the Gipper is uplifting, at least to the man in the center chair at the cabinet table.

And Fineman isn’t alone. Ed Schultz, a liberal radio talker and host of MSNBC’s “Ed Show” made a similar comparison on his April 5 program. However, Schultz’s evaluation was done in an effort to attack the GOP for opposing the extension of unemployment benefits.

“Ronald Reagan was called the great communicator,” Schultz said. “There’s simply no question that Barack Obama is also a great communicator. He needs to be speaking up aggressively and making it clear that in this moment, what Tom Coburn is doing is not making a point about the deficit. What Tom Coburn is doing is slowing down the economic recovery, because when you stop these unemployment benefits, you squeeze money out of the towns that are hardest hit across this country.”

And some have taken it a step further – that Obama is better at being Reagan than Reagan. According to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, the comparison was not only valid but Obama had exceeded Reagan’s abilities as a communicator.

“The good news for this president, of course, is that he, like Reagan, is the great communicator, gets very high marks on that,” O’Brien said on CNN’s Jan. 27 “The Situation Room. “And in fact when we asked in the polls how do you rate him as a communicator, Obama – now 90 percent say he's a great communicator, a good speaker and communicator. Reagan 84 – 84 percent said that President Reagan was a great speaker and great communicator. So he's beating Reagan, who was known as ‘The Great Communicator.’”

But even where Obama has failed, particularly the economy, pundits have managed to trot out the Reagan comparison to prop up the current command-in-chief.

“If we can just – I've been wanting to share this on ‘Meet the Press’ for some time,” former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw said on NBC’s March 14 “Meet the Press.” “Looking forward beyond the elections this fall about the political future of President Obama, here are some numbers that people may want to keep in mind. These are the unemployment rates in key states in 1982, well into President Reagan's first term. Look at the screen. Michigan, 16.8 percent; Alabama, 14.3; Ohio, 13.9; down through 12 and above. That went on into 1983. Did it spell the end of the Reagan presidency? Not exactly.”

And although it’s convenient for the left to draw these comparisons for the sake of political expediency, Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, says Barack Obama is hardly cast in the mold of Ronald Reagan.

“One can quarrel about the efficacy and justice of the Reagan tax cuts and the Obama health care expansion, but one thing is plain from the political styles that these presidents have brought to the passage of their signature domestic legislation,” Berkowitz wrote for The Weekly Standard on Aug. 10, 2009. “Reagan's forthright approach is more consistent with democratic norms and the presuppositions of a free society than Obama's hide-the-ball tactics.”