They were doing a roaring trade at the Ronald Reagan Library this holiday weekend, with crowds so big that the car-park overflowed and visitors were forced to undergo the most un-American ordeal of parking up to a mile from the gate and walking up a steep hill to the ticket office.
Like all modern Presidents, The Gipper preserved his personal memorabilia in a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to his life and times. He’s buried in its garden, on a hillside which would have a spectacular view were it not spoiled by two unlovely legacies of hi s reign: a noisy freeway and a handful of vast McMansions.
The Library recently underwent an expensive refurbishment, and it’s an impressive place. A hangar-sized showroom contains Air Force One, the Presidential Jet, while a series of interconnecting galleries take you through every stage of Reagan’s career, from Hollywood B-movie star to Californian Governor, to US President who presided over the end of the Cold War.
Reagan is hot stuff right now, thanks to his veneration by the demographic of Republican voters known broadly as Tea Partiers. And they were there in force, wearing Hawaiian shirts in stars-and-stripes livery and investing heavily in framed excerpts of the US Constitution sold in the gift shop.
Several auditoriums meanwhile played politically themed videos drawing not-so-subtle parallels between the circumstances which hastened his rise – faltering economy, growing national defecit, and fears over America’s ability to retain its global pre-eminence – and today’s polarised political landscape.
The message of the films, broadly, is that Republicans need to rediscover the old Reagan magic if they want to reconnect with voters in 2012. It’s a cute-sounding idea (he won elections, after all). But when push comes to shove, Reagan would be hard pressed to win a GOP nominaton today.
For one thing, when you crunch the numbers, it emerges that he grew the national debt more than any predecessor since the War (by 11 percent of GDP during his first term, and nine percent in his second). That’s exactly the sort of profligacy that, when enacted by Barack Obama, has the tea-party faithful calling for impeachment.
Secondly, growing numbers of Reagan’s former economic confidantes have recently criticised Republican policy as too right wing. Some have even voiced support for a policy which is also an anathema to today’s tea-partiers: asking some of the wealthier people in America to pay slightly more tax.
At the weekend, David Alan Stockman, Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget gave this fascinating interview to the San Francisco Chronicle arguing that the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires ought to be abolished. Then Bruce Bartlett, one of Reagan’s senior policy analysts, made the perfectly accurate observation (in conversation with The Huffington Post) that US federal taxes are currently 14.8 percent of GDP, some way less than the post-war average of 18 percent.
All of which hints at an awkward truth: Ronald Reagan would be far too left wing for today’s Republican party.