GOP Clings to Reagan Myth

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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

GOP Clings to Reagan Myth

The six candidates for the chair of the Republican National Committee who appeared before the National Press Club last week were asked who in their opinion was the best ever Republican president.

To a man (a seventh candidate, a woman, wasn't there) they proclaimed it to be Ronald Reagan.

Astounding. Ronald Reagan the best Republican president in history?

Abraham Lincoln, the Republican who saved the Union, who freed millions of African-American slaves, who inspired generations of Americans to reach for the stars, who is immortalized on Mount Rushmore, wasn't even mentioned by the men -- two of them African-Americans at that -- who want to lead the Republicans back to power.

That speaks volumes about what has happened to the leadership of the national Republican Party and why its influence continues to wane in so much of America.

Its leaders can't wean themselves from the Ronald Reagan myth -- that somehow he was a great president and everything would be all right again if the Republicans just returned to the days when Reagan ruled.

Yes, it's a myth.

The GOP can't bring itself to admit it, but so many of today's economic problems and the divisiveness that came to mark American politics these past years can be traced back to the presidency of a man who refined the GOP's "Southern strategy" and the cultural wedge issues that flowed from it.

My first political memory of Reagan goes way back to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Ronald Reagan was then the governor of California. He didn't have much praise for the slain civil rights leader, blaming his murder on "a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people (i.e. King) started choosing which laws they'd break."

While everyone from presidential candidate Richard Nixon to the sanitation workers in Memphis was publicly mourning King's death, Reagan was indirectly appealing to the bigotry that was so prevalent in the 1960s: that Martin Luther King Jr. deserved what he got. It wasn't that Reagan was a bigot himself, but he and his entourage, led by the infamous political hit man Lee Atwater, perfected what became infamously known as racial politics -- a slap in the face to the legacy of Republican Abraham Lincoln.

After falling short of the Republican nomination in '72 and '76, Reagan launched his 1980 run for the presidency by giving a speech advocating "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Miss., the southern community made infamous by the murder of three civil rights workers only years before.

When he did become president after the 1980 election, Reagan set out to dismantle government -- good government as well as bad. It's as if the Reaganites didn't want government to succeed and were determined to make sure it wouldn't. Except for the interruption of the Bill Clinton presidency in the 1990s, Reagan and his successors succeeded in crippling the financial regulatory system, destroying the progressive income tax system, and running up debt that wasn't even equaled in war time.

Reagan succeeded in changing American culture from one of looking out for each other to one of looking out for one's self. Taxes were bad, period. Placing checks on savings and loans and banks would hurt the economy. The more money wealthy people could make, the more that would trickle down to the little guy.

We sit here a little more than 20 years later paying the bill for the irresponsible policies and the "voodoo" economics that got their start under what wannabe leaders of the Republican Party claim is the greatest Republican president in history.

Excuse me while I cast my vote for a president who saved and built America, not one who tried to destroy it.

Dave Zweifel

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.

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