Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

Feb 08, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news.

Read today's column, The GOP's selective memory on Ronald Reagan, in which Gene writes: "The Republican Party tries to claim the Reagan mantle but has moved so far to the right that it now inhabits its own parallel universe. On the planet that today's GOP leaders call home, Reagan would qualify as one of those big-government, tax-and-spend liberals who are trying so hard to destroy the American way of life."

Hi, everybody. Welcome to our regular chat, and let's get started. Today's column made the argument that Ronald Reagan -- the man, not the myth -- had more in common with today's Democrats than today's far-far-right Republicans, who are more inflexible and ideological than the Gipper ever was.  Apparently, some readers disagree.

I agree with much of what you say on taxes and the current Republican orthodoxy. But many of us remember a Reagan much different from the myth - the man who invaded Grenada, gave arms to Iran to fund an illegal war in Central America, joked about starting WWIII, demonized poor people (renamed welfare queens), stopped enforcing civil rights laws and busted unions. Why not take on the myth more directly?

That's a different column. I remember that Reagan, too.

My take on Reagan is less, ahem, charitable than yours. He introduced the thinking and the policies that government was the problem, and corporations or privatization were the solution. He really opened the spigot of tax dollars to private companies to do government work, and sacked unionized government employees. The result of this "neo-liberalism" ideology - is that government is no longer designed to work - ie.our failure after Hurricane Katrina - but it is designed to efficiently shovel money to un-accountable private contractors. Privatization proponents cannot show it is more efficient or more effective than government workers, but Reagan convinced Americans to believe it was.

I didn't intend to be charitable to Reagan. I just meant to compare him to today's Republican leaders, who are far more doctrinaire and inflexible than even he was.

Don't know how you overlooked that the Tipper stiffed the Gipper on expected spending reductions. Instead, when you want to construct some identity between Ronald Reagan and current Democrats (led by such as Obama and Pelosi), ask this: (1) would the Democrats have warned PATCO not to conduct an illegal strike and then fired those union members who struck (or would Obama have granted a waiver as with SEIU); (2) would the Democrats have the guts to call the Soviets' bluff (Ted Kennedy said Reagan won the Cold War) or would they reach out as Obama has done so well in Iran; (3) would the Democrats make cause with someone like Maggie Thacher to strengthen our friends or would they, like Obama, stick thumbs in Israel's eye: (4) would Reagan plot to take over 1/6 of our Nation's economy on false pretenses (Obama's claims of people keeping their own doctors and costs coming down refuted by Medicare's chief actuary recently); (5) would Reagan have imposed a moratorium on drilling in the Gulf (Obama admin. held in contempt last week by a Federal judge on this in case you hadn't heard); (6) etc. The attempt bt the Dems to emrace Reagan simply is another sign of their desperation. And they have good reason to be in panic.

Democrats aren't embracing Reagan. I'm just pointing out that Reagan's record has more in common with that of today's Democrats than than of today's Republicans, who are on another planet.

1. Comparing PATCO and SEIU is ridiculous.

2. Ditto on comparing the Soviet Union (posed an existential threat to the U.S.) and Iran (does not.)

3. Thatcher and Israel? Your reach for comparisons is beyond your grasp, I think. Why not compare Reagan and Obama on Israel? I'd probably argue that Reagan admin was tougher on our ally.

4. You mean, would Reagan have proposed comprehensive health care reform and sought to cover the tens of millions of uninsured? Would he have found the status quo to be a national disgrace? No. Got me there.

5. Only if there was a big oil spill.

6. I'm not sensing a lot of panic right now among Democrats -- and certainly not at the White House.

Eugene, although I think President Reagan was very far to the right and not the greatest of presidents, he certainly did some noble things like raise taxes during a recession, something Obama can't seem to accomplish. That said, what do you think President Obama's re-election odds are if the election were held today? The Republican field seems very weak and I don't think any of them stand a shot at the President. Thoughts?

I disagreed with Reagan on just about everything. What I do acknowledge is that he had a huge impact on American politics, for better or worse. He moved the country to the right, and what we need to do now is move it back.

I think President Obama's chances would be excellent if the election were held today. In polls, he beats all his potential GOP opponents.

Reagan defenders, including Lou Cannon, have argued Reagan gave a speech in Philadelphia, MS, where 3 civil rights workers were murdered, because he committed to giving a speech and was superstitious about canceling because of his history as an actor. Fair enough, but why does he go there and say, "I believe in states' rights"?

If he didn't know the significance of going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, and proclaiming support for "states' rights," then shame on him. I think he did know, and I know that people in his campaign knew.

As some one who absolutely detested Reagan I have to say that your piece today is extremely disheartening. It is sad to have to read in print that the Democrats have become the party of Reagan while the GOP is even more rightwing and conservative than he was. But I guess it is something I have known deep down for some time now.

Painful for me, too. But listen to the way Democrats talk now, remember how they talked 30 years ago, and you'll realize how successful Reagan was at shifting our political discourse to the right.  What I find amazing is that today's Republican Party is so extreme that Reagan, I believe, wouldn't recognize it.

Come on, you know the only reason you're latching on to Reagan is because Obama is trying to emulate him for a reelection strategy. Why else would you chose now to attack one of the pillars of conservatism?

Um, because I'm not exactly a conservative? And because I consider pillars of conservativism worthty of rhetorical attack pretty much any day of the week?

I knew Reagan was forced to raise taxes as President, but I had no idea Reagan also raised taxes as governor of California. That story never seems to get much traction.

Thanks. He raised taxes a lot in California, because the situation called for tax hikes. The same was true when he was in the White House (following his big initial tax cut, of course). Somebody tell John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

Hey, Gene. Do you think that at long last, what looks like a sweeping rise of democracy in the Mid East may finally change our policy toward Israel? Seems to me we have let them pursue a policy that almost myopically furthers their own interests and disses the legitimate claims of the Palestinians. Obama tried and failed to change this, but now with the far-ranging rise of potentially Islamic governments in the region, maybe we will try harder. Our support of Israel didnt cause the rise of Al Quaeda but it is a powerful and continuing stimulant. Maybe Tunisia and Egypt will be a long-overdue wake-up call. Your thoughts?

In my memory, the secretary of state who was toughest on Israel, in my estimation, was James Baker. Our alliance with Israel will continue, for a host of good reasons. But we've been unable to convince the Israelis to make a fair deal with the Palestinians, and I don't know why the prospect of instability (read: democracy) and perhaps Islamism in neighboring countries would make a deal any more likely.

You question who The Gripper's true heirs are in your column, but considering the fact that he was a strong advocate of Constitutionalism, American Exceptionalism, Peace Through Strength, and the spread of Democracy to every corner of the globe, how can you not say that his true heirs are the Tea Party?

Because Reagan, in the end, governed in a way that showed faith in the power of government to make a positive difference in people's lives. I don't think that's part of the Tea Party credo.

After the malaise of the Carter years, Reagan taught the world that we were proud to be Americans. Now, Obama seems to go around apologizing for what America did and has made the nuts of the world openly scorn us. That Israeli was right, Obama is a naif, at best.

I've got news for you. The Cold War is over, and so is the system of bipolar stability and client states that the Cold War enforced. New economic and military powers have risen. There was a time when we could spend enough on arms to bankrupt the Soviet Union; now, we're spending far more than we can afford and threaten to bankrupt only ourselves. Anyone who does not recognize reality as it is, not as it was, could certainly be called, um, naive.

"Amnesty." And while I know the plural of anecdote is not data, I'd like to say that as soon as my parents managed to become citizens, they registered as Republicans as a way to thank the party that granted them legal status. By 2008, both were registered Democrats, as were all their (well-off, politically active) adult children. Today's GOP is a joke.

Thanks for reminding everyone that Ronald Reagan did, in fact, grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Those who want to claim Reagan's mantle should have to claim it all.

Ugh. All of this Reagan glorification makes me ill. I was too young to vote against him, but I remember a lot that he did and didn't do that made me so mad as a teenager--demonizing the poor, appointing James Watt, encouraging selfishness and greed as "morning in America." Anyhow, Reagan is just the latest and youngest subject of Republican myth making and revisionism. My Fox-watching brother-in-law told me last year that my understanding that slavery was a central cause of the Civil War was "4th grade level" and it was (as Reagan said), all about "state's rights" since most of the people who fought for the confederacy were too poor to own slaves themselves. Ugh!

Ugh indeed. Your brother-in-law should turn off the TV and pick up a history book.

Gene: As I like to point out to folks, Ronald Reagan lived in Hollywood far longer than he did in Sacramento or DC. He and Nancy had numerous gay friends, unbeknownst to many of his most fervent followers. That's why, despite his very belated response to the AIDS crisis, he never engaged in gay bashing. Indeed, one long established couple from Hollywood, Jimmy Shields and William "Billy" Haines (the latter a major star at MGM in the silent and early talkies era) stayed in the Lincoln bedroom during Reagan's time in the White House.

All of that is true. I do think, though, that his refusal even to say the word AIDS for so long was appalling.

I don't think you mentioned this in the column, but Reagan was also important to the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working as public school teachers. Yet today, we have someone like Jim DeMint who has stated he wants to get rid of such teachers (as well as unwed women who are sexually active)!

My point exactly. Reagan's views were far-right, but at least they fell on the spectrum. The views of today's Republicans (like DeMint) are from another planet, or maybe a parallel universe.

Like many (spoiled) children of wealth and successful parents, W took part of Reagan's message--it's okay to throw our weight around in world affairs because we're better than the alternative--and ignored the charm and the nuance that (though it pains to say) Reagan employed at the same time. W. and his unembellished use of force is Reagan's real legacy.

Reagan knew when to fold his hand, as with the withdrawal from Lebanon. Imagine if that decision had been made by a Democrat...

One thing I remember Reagan saying early in his first term was that under the budget cuts he was proposing, the social "safety net" would still be there, and that the "truly needy" would be able to get the assistance they needed. Can you imagine anyone in today's GOP talking about safety nets or the truly needy?


Homeless in America are Reagan's legacy. Until Reagan there were always skid rows, but never armies of homeless. I read in Sunday's Post that Reagan Library or family have engaged a PR firm to improve Reagan's image for posterity. They are wasting their money, neutral historians will proclaim Reagan the worst president of the second half of the 20th century.

In my ranking of presidents, no, Reagan does not rank highly. On homelessness, though, I have to point out that much of the increase was an unintended byproduct of deinstitutionalization. The idea was to close Bedlam-like state mental institutions and send people to community-based care, but the system of community care was never really established -- and a lot of people ended up on the streets. Then there was the crack epidemic, too.

"Eugene Robinson : Thanks for reminding everyone that Ronald Reagan did, in fact, grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Those who want to claim Reagan's mantle should have to claim it all." This is correct, but the 1986 amnesty was supposed to be the "last" amnesty and the law going forward was expected to be enforced. The complete failure of the government to do so is a major factor in people not supporting reform this time around.

I won't point out that Republicans occupied the White House for more of that period of non-enforcement. I'll just assert, confidently, that no president -- no president, period -- is going to try to track down and deport 11 million illegal immigrants. Not going to happen. Let's get over it and see if we can do it right this time.

Your comment on bankrupting the Soviet Union through defense spending got me thinking. Do you think al Qaida is (successfully) using the same tactic against us? We already spend as much or more as the rest of the world combined on defense.

Al-Qaeda is evil but not stupid. Bin Laden has boasted of luring the United States into expensive wars that sap our resources and inspire recruits to sign up for jihad.

Eugene, thanks for the article today. It was because of Reagan that I grew up as a Republican. But I stopped calling myself one in 2006 when the GOP seemed to go over the edge. I split my ticket now, but will probably never go back completely. Do you think the GOP will ever find room for a pragmatist, such as Reagan, again?

If the GOP is to survive long-term, it will.


Folks, my time is up for today. Thanks for dropping in, and I'll see you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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