Here Are 5 Reagan-Era Republicans Who Would Not Be Welcome in Trump's GOP Party of 2018

The Republican ‘big tent’ and fragile coalition of the Reagan era is dead and gone.


In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan famously asserted that if you agreed with him 80% of the time, you were an 80% ally rather than a 20% traitor—and applying that big-tent philosophy, Reagan led a fragile right-wing coalition that ranged from Christian Right theocrats to libertarians and Goldwater Republicans to northeastern Rockefeller Republicans. “Fragile” was the operative word: libertarians and the Christian Right hated one another with a passion, and Sen. Barry Goldwater was a blistering critic of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority. But while Reagan wasn’t shy about pandering to religious extremists, he wasn’t big on purity tests—and he managed to make everyone from Falwell to Rep. Ron Paul to Sen. Arlen Specter to Sen. John McCain feel welcome in the GOP. 

But in the era of the Tea Party and Trumpism, Reagan’s big-tent philosophy for the GOP is dead and gone. The Republican Party is now the Trump Party, and purity tests are the norm—which is why, when all is said and done, Judge Brett Kavanaugh will most likely be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual abuse. Chances are that in the Senate, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will vote for Kavanaugh rather than have the courage to defy President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Here are five 1980s Reagan/George H.W. Bush, Sr.-era Republicans who had some wiggle room back then but would be crucified in today’s Trumpista GOP.

1. Sandra Day O’Connor

Reagan was more nuanced than Trump when it came to Supreme Court nominations. While Trump has made it clear that he will only nominate far-right extremists, Reagan nominated some extremists (including Antonin Scalia and the defeated Robert Bork) but also nominated libertarian-leaning Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor. No one would mistake O’Connor for fellow Republican Earl Warren, who was the most liberal chief justice in the Court’s history: her judicial philosophy was generally conservative, but she wasn’t an extremist—and many Senate Democrats voted for her confirmation in 1981. Someone like O’Connor, who left the High Court in 2006 and is now 88, would never be considered by Trump.

2. Sen. Arlen Specter

A major bombshell in Pennsylvania politics came in 2009, when Sen. Arlen Specter officially announced that he was switching to the Democratic Party. The Pennsylvania senator declared, “As the Republican Party has moved farther and farther to the right, I have found myself increasingly at odds with the Republican philosophy and more in line with the philosophy of the Democratic Party.” But Reagan, in the 1980s, treated Specter like an 80% ally rather than a 20% enemy. And even though Specter angered a lot of wingnuts by voting against Bork’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987, he gladly voted to confirm the more libertarian right-winger Anthony Kennedy.

3. Gen. Colin Powell

In a 1989 article for Parade Magazine, the centrist Gen. Colin Powell wrote that one of his 13 Rules of Leadership was “get mad, then get over it.” But when the Trumpista Republicans of 2018 get mad, they stay mad and hold grudges—and while Reagan and President George H.W. Bush considered Powell an ally,  someone with his positions would never be welcome in the Trump Administration. Powell, now 81, is pro-choice on the abortion issue and supports affirmative action and a reasonable amount of gun control—all of which would be deal breakers in the Trump Party of 2018.

4. Sen. John H. Chafee

In the 1980s, Sen. John H. Chafee (Lincoln Chafee’s father) was among the northeastern Rockfeller Republicans in the Reagan coalition. But the late Rhode Island senator (who had served as governor of Rhode Island and later, secretary of the navy under President Richard Nixon) would never be welcome in the Trump Administration. Not only did Chaffee support abortion rights and oppose the death penalty; he also favored universal health care via the private sector, introducing a 1993 bill in the Senate that contained many elements of what we now call Obamacare—including an individual mandate, a ban on denying coverage to Americans with preexisting conditions, and assistance in helping the poor purchase health insurance. In other words, Chafee was a Republican who greatly influenced the Affordable Care Act of 2010. And the Republican senators who co-sponsored Chafee’s bill included Bob Dole, Richard Lugar and—most ironically—Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, now Trumpistas.

5. Tom Ridge

The 1982 midterms were bad for Republicans, who lost a lot of seats in Congress that year. But Tom Ridge was narrowly elected to the U.S. House of Representatives via Pennsylvania that year, and he was reelected to the House multiple times before being elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1994. Although conservative, Ridge is staunchly pro-choice on abortion and has been critical of the Christian Right. In the 1980s, Reagan and Ridge were on friendly terms despite their different views on abortion; they agreed to disagree. But Ridge is no fan of President Trump, and in 2016, he stressed that he would not be endorsing either Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton.


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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.