He was willing to work together while getting many wins.
This post is taken from his autobiography and often uses large block quotations.
- Reagan was a the right kind of conservative.
He distanced himself from these: “Right wingers” (p. 153); “radical conservatives” (p. 171); “conservative diehards” (p. 206); “hard core conservatives” (p. 322); and “ultra pure conservatives” (p. 322).
He was, simply put, a conservative. But what does that mean in political terms?
- His brand of winsome conservatism built large coalitions.
Currently about forty-two percent claim to be neither conservative nor liberal.
After defeating incumbent Gov. Brown in 1966 by a margin of 58-42, he understood who his supporters were: “In fact, analysis of the election returns showed that most of my support didn’t come from right wingers or even conservative Republicans, but from middle-of-the-road voters in both parties” (p. 153).
His built even bigger coalitions when he ran in 1980 and 1984.
- As governor and later as president he learned he had to work with with the opposition and often won most of what he wanted.
This point may be the most important one.
In response to his avoiding the California legislature after he was elected governor, he wrote:
There were still some hard feelings toward me left over from the campaign, when I’d gone out of my way to say I thought the professional politicians in Sacramento and I were natural enemies: My loyalty was to the people, not the political establishment, and I had said so fairly pointedly. Although the sentiment never changed, I realized after a while that to accomplish what I wanted to do swimming upstream against a current of opposition legislators, I’d have to do some negotiating with them. And that meant I’d make a truce of sorts with the opposition, meet with them socially, invite them over for a drink, get to know them. I began doing that (p. 170)
In that excerpt, note the words “political establishment.” He soon became part of it (see below).
He writes that the “most radical conservatives” didn’t want him to work with Democrats but demand all-or-nothing:
When I began entering into the give and take of legislative bargaining in Sacramento, a lot of the most radical conservatives who had supported me during the election didn’t like it. “Compromise” was a dirty word to them and they wouldn’t face the fact that we couldn’t get all of what we wanted today. They wanted all or nothing and they wanted it all at once. If you don’t get it all, some said, don’t take anything. (p. 170)
I’d learned while negotiating union contracts that you seldom got everything you asked for. And I agreed with FDR, who said in 1933: “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”
If he could get seventy-five to eighty percent of what he wanted, that was a win.
If you got seventy-five or eighty percent of what you were asking for, I say, you take it and fight for the rest later, and that is what I told these radical conservatives who never got used to it. (p. 171)
In the spring and early summer of 1981, he intended to get his spending and tax cuts—his economic recovery program—through Congress, he needed the help of Democrats, so he called and met with them. He negotiated and prodded. He needed the help of the boll weevils.
As sweet as this initial victory was [the boll weevils joining his side], we had a long way to go on the two fronts of cutting spending and cutting taxes. I realized I would have to compromise and settle for less than the full thirty percent, three year cut I wanted, but got some plums I hadn’t expected: In late May, a group of Democrats announced a counter-proposal to our tax plan that rejected the thirty-percent-over three years cut, but accepted a smaller cut in personal income tax rates, while proposing a reduction in the top rate on unearned income from seventy percent to fifty. I’d wanted that in the first place, but figured the Democrats would attack us for pandering to the rich, so we hadn’t ask for it in our package. To get on the people’s new anti-tax bandwagon, some Democrats also called for indexing income tax rates, so that rates would decline each year in step with inflation and end “bracket creep.” That was something else I wanted but doubted we could get.
I agreed “reluctantly” to give in to their proposals and accept a twenty-five-percent reduction in rates over three years, phased in at five, ten, and ten percent, and hailed it as great bipartisan solution. (p. 286)
- He soon became part of the establishment.
It happens when one is involved in politics and lives in the capital for two terms. It’s not a bad thing. He writes:
When I’d been campaigning I was cheered by students because I was running against an incumbent who was part of the establishment. Now I was the establishment. (p. 179, emphasis original).
- Regan wanted to reform the social programs, not eliminate them.
As governor, he again refuses to wage an all-or-nothing war:
Some of my conservative supporters tried to pressure me to wage an all-or-nothing battle to virtually eliminate the welfare program; but I believed we should not take aid from the people who really needed and deserved it, the truly impoverished elderly, blind, and disabled. (p. 189)
As president he praises the virtue of government aid to the genuinely needy. When Gobachev criticized America because people slept on the street, Reagan praised the virtue of unemployment insurance: “when a man loses his job, for a certain period of time he continues to receive payment” (p. 698).
Gorbachev asked what happens when the checks stop and they still don’t have job. “‘Well,” I said, ‘then we have another program. We call it welfare. They become eligible for that if they still can’t get a job.’ He had never heard of unemployment or welfare benefits before.” (p. 698).
- He was not a government shutdown hostage taker.
Congress put virtually every one of the budgets I drafted on the shelf and sent me a continuing resolution. If I had vetoed it, the government wouldn’t have been able to write a paycheck or a Social Security check. The whole government might have to ground to a halt, and the baby would have gone out with the bath water. So they’d have me. (p. 337)
He wasn’t happy signing the resolutions, but he did anyway for the good of the country, and denied his own political ambitions.
- He advocated incremental reform of government.
During his 1981 inaugural address, he said progress would be slow:
Progress may be slow, measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress. (p. 227)
At various times during his presidency he repeats his incrementalism:
Although I knew we couldn’t turn things around overnight, I wanted to begin … (p. 230)
In early February, in a national television broadcast, I told the people that solving problems that accumulated over decades would take time, but that all of us working together could do it. We must realize there is no quick fix … but we couldn’t delay in implementing an economic program aimed at both reducing tax rates to stimulate productivity and reducing the growth in government spending to reduce unemployment and inflation. (p. 234)
I never thought we could cut costs so fast that we’d balance the budget overnight. I knew it would take time. There were too many programs that people based their lives and businesses on; you couldn’t pull the rug out from under all of them at once. But I wanted to cut more around the waist of a middle-aged man.
I didn’t come to Washington with stars in my eyes, thinking it would be easy. I’d been through the same kind of battle at the state level and knew how difficult it could be. I came to Washington thinking it was going to be tough, but that it could be done.
Over time, we rendered a lot of fat out of the government; we reduced the size of bureaucracy and cut the rate at which the government was growing and spending money, and I’m very proud of that. But the vested interests that hold sway over Congress prevented us from cutting spending nearly as much as I had hope to, or as the country required. (p. 335)
Time to wrap this up.
What would Reagan do?
Today’s candidates use over-the-top rhetoric to draw voters their way, but Reagan’s politics were balanced and reasonable.
If we wage an all-or-nothing war with government and the opposition, we’ll lose in November and a long time after. We have already lost five out of six of the popular vote in the presidential elections.
Certain radio and TV talkers should stop claiming Reagan as theirs until they at long last understand him.
If we want to win in November and from here on out, we need to adopt his political strategies and his winsome demeanor and friendly approach to a divided government. And even when it isn’t divided, we should move incrementally.
Be like Reagan, if you want to win.