News & Politics

Conservative "Purity Test" Too Right Wing for Ronald Reagan

Rigid conservatives in the RNC want to establish a purity test for the party's candidates. Guess what? Reagan the conservative hero would have failed most of the criteria.

The most rigidly conservative members of the Republican National Committee are circulating a proposal to establish a purity test for the party's candidates.

If adopted, the party would withhold money from any contender who disagreed with conservative principles on more than two of 10 essential issues identified by the right-wingers.

"The problem is that conservatives have lost trust in the Republican Party that we will govern as conservatives," argues James Bopp Jr., an RNC member from Indiana who has spearheaded the purity-test push. "I think that loss of trust is warranted to a certain extent because of the fact that we in the final several years of the Bush administration were supporting increased government, earmarks and, ultimately, bailouts."

Earlier this year, Bopp and his compatriots pressured RNC chair Michael Steele to declare President Obama to be a "socialist." The conservative crusaders were rebuffed then, but if they win approval for their purity test at the committee's winter meeting in January, the party will officially express: "Republican solidarity in opposition to Obama's socialist agenda is necessary to preserve the security of our country, our economic and political freedoms, and our way of life."

With Orwellian irony, Bopp and his buddies have labeled their proposal: "Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates. "The relevant portion of the resolution reads:

WHEREAS, the Republican National Committee shares President Ronald Reagan's belief that the Republican Party should espouse conservative principles and public policies and welcome persons of diverse views; and   WHEREAS, the Republican National Committee desires to implement President Reagan's Unity Principle for Support of Candidates; and WHEREAS, in addition to supporting candidates, the Republican National Committee provides financial support for Republican state and local parties for party building and federal election activities, which benefits all candidates and is not affected by this resolution; and THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Republican National Committee identifies ten (10) key public policy positions for the 2010 election cycle, which the Republican National Committee expects its public officials and candidates to support: (1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama's "stimulus" bill; (2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare; (3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation; (4) We support workers' right to secret ballot by opposing card check; (5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants; (6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges; (7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat; (8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act; (9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing, denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and (10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership; and be further RESOLVED, that a candidate who disagrees with three or more of the above stated public policy positions of the Republican National Committee, as identified by the voting record, public statements and/or signed questionnaire of the candidate, shall not be eligible for financial support and endorsement by the Republican National Committee; and be further RESOLVED, that upon the approval of this resolution the Republican National Committee shall deliver a copy of this resolution to each of Republican members of Congress, all Republican candidates for Congress, as they become known, and to each Republican state and territorial party office.

Fair enough.

So here's a question: Applying the standard established in the resolution – review of the candidate's official record, public statements and answers to questions – would Ronald Reagan pass the purity test?

Let's see:

(1) Deficit spending soared during Reagan's presidency.Strike one.

(2) As governor of California, Reagan oversaw the development of Medi-Cal, the nation's largest Medicaid program – expanding it to cover long-term care and developed massive new managed care systems. Strike two.

(3) As governor of California, Reagan Reagan established the Air Resources Board to battle California's smog problems and supported aggressive government intervention where the market had failed to protect the environment. As president, Reagan signed more wilderness protections laws – which restrict private-sector exploitation of natural resources – than any president in history. Strike three.

(4) Reagan was a former union president who campaigned against the Taft-Hartley Act and other restrictions of the right of unions to organize. Strike four.

(5) Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to most undocumented workers who could prove they had been in the country continuously for the previous five years. After he finished his presidency, Reagan continues to speak out forcefully for immigration rights. Strike five.

(6) After the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut, Reagan was urged by some to surge more troops into the region. Instead, he ordered the Marines to begin withdrawal from Lebanon. Strike six.

(7) Reagan acknowledged that during his presidency the U.S.sold weapons to Iran. Strike seven.

(8) Reagan was the first president to invite an openly gay couple to spend the night in the White House and he famously argued that gays and lesbians should not be discriminated against in a 1978 television advertising campaign. Strike eight.

(9) Shortly after his inauguration as governor of California, Reagan signed into law the most liberal abortion statute of its day". Strike nine.

(10) Here's Reagan, in 1991, on gun control: "I support the Brady Bill, and I urge the Congress to enact it without further delay." Strike ten.

Of course it is true that Reagan, like John Kerry, was for some ideas before he was against them.

Reasonable people might debate the proper point at which to try and pin Reagan down.

But no reasonable person can suggest that Ronald Reagan would have met the eight out ten test the RNC right-wingers seek to apply – especially on hot-button issues such as gun control, gay rights and immigration.

Indeed, one of the favorites of the RNC's extreme conservatives, Florida U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, recently declared that Reagan was wrong to support amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

And it is probably worth noting that, when Reagan was seeking the Republican nomination in 1980, conservatives Phil Crane and John Connolly suggested that "the Gipper" was an amiable fellow but just not pure enough. Crane positioned himself that year as as a pure conservative alternative to Reagan.

Crane, the purist, won 1.8 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Republican primary and exited stage right.

 

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.