It’s funny what conservatives will forgive.
Late last week, they treated John McCain to a chorus of jeers when he appeared before the Conservative Political Action Conference and dared to bring up illegal immigration—a very sore spot with an audience that believes McCain’s efforts on the subject have amounted to a bid to provide “amnesty” to 12 million or so undocumented workers.
But the next morning, the very same activists in the very same room serenaded George W. Bush with chants of “Four more years!”—even though it was Bush who made enacting McCain’s despised “amnesty” legislation one of his second term priorities.
Over and over this campaign season, we have heard about the right’s distrust of McCain, talk that reached fever pitch when he emerged as the likely Republican nominee and was promptly greeted by a band of talk show bloviators who suggested they’d sooner vote for Hillary Clinton than for him. How could they be so offended by McCain, but not Bush?
But wait, you say: McCain hasn’t departed from conservative orthodoxy on just the issue of immigration. There’s also campaign finance reform, the first two rounds of the Bush tax cuts, global climate change and—to the extent it has become a litmus test for conservative ideology—“enhanced interrogation,” or as McCain calls it, “torture.” Maybe the loud anti-McCain voices of the right have a point: He’s broken with them too many times to be considered one of them.
But those same voices have forgiven breaches of faith just as voluminous and just as egregious as McCain’s before. In fact, “forgiven” is a tame way of describing their treatment of one particular apostate: “Deification” more aptly expresses the right’s treatment of Ronald Reagan and his presidency.
That would be the Reagan who, according to their preferred lore, slashed taxes, scaled back government, toppled Soviet communism, combated global tyranny, and promoted traditional values on the home front.
And there is at least something to this characterization. Reagan was elected as a pure conservative, the Barry Goldwater disciple who had been dismissed by much of the political establishment right up until the end of the 1980 campaign as too extreme to win a national election. And he paid eloquent lip service to the right throughout his two terms in office, lamenting the rise of abortion, yearning for school prayer, calling the Soviets an “evil empire,” and never missing a chance to remind Americans—as he did in his first inaugural—that “government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.”
This is the Reagan that conservatives have in mind when they name airports after him, add his name to highways and public buildings, and insist that prospective Republican nominees invoke his name dozens of times in speeches and debates.
But the actual Reagan record looks, dare it be said, McCain-like in its departures from ideological purity.
Take immigration. It was Reagan who in 1986 offered blanket amnesty—no strings attached—to millions of law-abiding illegal immigrants. That is a vastly less conservative approach than McCain’s call for an onerous 13-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, who would only be permitted to stay after registering with the government, learning the language and paying a fine, among other requirements. It could, in fact, be argued that McCain embraced Reagan’s spirit of inclusion and sought to improve on it by correcting what didn’t work in the ’86 amnesty program.
Or foreign policy, where Reagan was not quite as single-minded and resolutely anti-Soviet as the right now depicts him.
In 1982, for instance, he sent U.S. troops into Lebanon, supposedly to help keep the peace after Israel invaded the country at the height of its 15-year civil war. As in Iraq two decades later, U.S. forces soon found themselves trying to police a war between numerous factions, and on one awful day in October 1983, terrorists associated with the burgeoning Hezbollah organization killed 240 American troops in Beirut.
Reagan—like George W. Bush two decades later – vowed not to cave in to terrorists and to maintain the U.S. presence. But unlike Bush, he changed his mind quickly: Four months later, the Americans had withdrawn. Today, many Reagan-loving conservatives use the term “cut and run” to describe the exact same approach to Iraq.
It was also Reagan who signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, which called for phased destruction of nearly 1,000 ballistic missiles from the U.S. arsenal (and even more from the Soviets). He then had to sell the INF treaty to the U.S. Senate—and to irate American conservatives.
In late 1987, Howard Phillips, the chairman of the Conservative Caucus, called Reagan “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Richard Viguerie, the godfather of conservative direct mail, announced that Reagan “is now aligned with his former adversaries: the liberals, the Democrats and the Soviets.”
Time and again during his presidency, Reagan pursued actual policies that were and are at odds with the expressed principles of the conservative movement. He added Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, tacked on a staggering $2 trillion in debt by failing to rein in spending, and left the federal government no smaller than he found it.
But all is apparently forgiven and forgotten now.
When it comes to adherence to conservative ideology, can it really be said that John McCain—lifelong opponent of abortion, militant crusader against government waste, possessor of a lifetime rating of 82 percent from the American Conservative Union, and truest of the true Iraq war believers –is any less loyal to the cause than its patron saint?