Magazine article The American Conservative

Was Ronald Reagan an FDR Republican?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Was Ronald Reagan an FDR Republican?

Article excerpt

The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Henry Olsen, Broadside Books, 368 pages

When the historian David McCullough interviewed three of the living presidents, he found Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter detached and uninterested. But the incumbent president, Ronald Reagan, was brimming with enthusiasm and extended the interview well past the allotted time. It is no secret that Ronald Reagan, who cast his first four presidential votes for FDR, remained an admirer of his predecessor throughout his public career. But does that mean--as Henry Olsen, my former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute and now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, comes close to suggesting in The Working Class Republican--that Reagan was a New Deal conservative?

Not exactly, is my verdict. It was conventional wisdom in Washington when Reagan was elected president that he represented a reversal of all that Roosevelt stood for. That was partisan delusion. Both the 32nd and 40th presidents were broadly favorable toward free trade and mass immigration, though not without some caveats and tactical steps in the other direction. And both conducted a foreign policy of what Olsen felicitously terms "muscular defense of freedom"--Roosevelt from about 1938 on and Reagan throughout his two terms. These are not small issues, and on each of them Donald Trump, who Olsen sees as another working-class Republican, stands in rhetoric and, to an extent yet undetermined, in practice, on the opposite side.

How much Reagan diverged from Roosevelt depends critically on what policies Roosevelt supported--and FDR often was purposely ambiguous about his actual views on numerous policies. You can quote Roosevelt, as Olsen does, for the proposition that welfare should not become a permanent dole, for example, while noting, as he also does, that FDR enacted what became Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a major federal welfare program.

Olsen mentions only in passing Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address outlining policies for the postwar nation: steeply graduated tax rates; government control of crop and food prices; continued controls on wages; federal government guarantees of jobs, education, clothing, housing, and medical care; and a national service law to prevent strikes and "make available for war production or for any other essential services every able-bodied adult in this nation." That sounds much like the Labour program for postwar Britain and was echoed, in diluted form, by the platform Harry Truman ran on in 1948 but failed to get through Congress afterward.

Reagan campaigned for Truman enthusiastically that year and, informed by his experience with thuggish communists in the union movement, opposed the left-wing Progressive candidacy of Henry Wallace, whose platform resembled Roosevelt's 1944 proposals. Olsen repeatedly notes Reagan's opposition to Wallace's views without noting how close they were to at least some of Roosevelt's. One suspects that Reagan, given his idolatry of Roosevelt, didn't focus particularly on the similarity during this period.

And it's fair to argue that Reagan's endorsement of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 was not necessarily a repudiation of Roosevelt either, given many Democrats' push to embrace Ike as one of their own and the general's refusal on the campaign trail and in office to countenance repeal of major New Deal legislation. That made Eisenhower anathema to Barry Goldwater and the young William F. Buckley Jr., but not to Reagan, who struck up a friendly mentee/mentor relationship with the post-presidential Eisenhower, as documented by Seattle physician Gene Kopelson in his Reagan's 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan's Emergence as a World Statesman.

The secrecy of his 1960s relationship with Eisenhower--no one before Kopelson unearthed it--fortifies my suspicion that Reagan was more ambitious than he wanted to appear, and that his ambition propelled his maneuvering to deliver his October 27, 1964, television speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater's hapless candidacy. …

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