Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, served as a policy adviser to Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Marco Rubio.
Sen. Barack Obama, campaigning in Nevada in early 2008, expressed his presidential ambitions in an eyebrow-raising way: by professing admiration for Ronald Reagan.
“Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and a way that Bill Clinton did not,” Obama said. “He put us on a fundamentally different path.” It gave Democrats the heebie-jeebies to think that their nominee might see the greatest conservative politician of the 20th century as his model.
But what if Obama — and everyone else — is wrong? What if Reagan, far from being a transformational political figure, was merely continuing the ideas and policies of the greatest progressive politician of the 20th century?
That’s the thesis of “The Working Class Republican,” by Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “I grew up as a conservative Republican in Ronald Reagan’s California,” Olsen begins, a “die-hard” Reaganite who saw the Gipper as the nation’s right-wing standard-bearer. But in the Obama years, as Olsen began reviewing Reagan’s speeches and writings, “what I found shocked me. Everything I had been told about Reagan’s philosophy, by the Right and the Left, had been wrong.”
Reagan, in Olsen’s telling, was to his last breath an FDR Democrat in GOP clothing. Indeed, Olsen contends, Franklin Roosevelt and Reagan were both ardent anti-communists who supported a limited but significant role for the federal government to intervene on behalf of the common man.
The New Deal dramatically expanded the role of the federal government in the U.S. economy, but its reforms were often carefully calibrated to provide social insurance to the working poor, in ways that frustrated the left in the years between the New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
In effect, while Olsen’s book focuses on the life of Reagan from the 1930s to the 1980s, it makes two revisionist arguments: first, that Reagan was much less conservative than previously understood; and second, that Roosevelt was much more conservative than previously understood.
Most provocatively, Olsen wants today’s GOP to embrace the legacy of FDR, to “reapply the cardinal principle enshrined in the New Deal, that government has a limited but strong role to play in helping the average person achieve his or her dreams.”
President Trump’s appeal, Olsen says, is a direct result of the fact that “the core thrust of [Trump’s] argument regarding government’s ultimate purpose bears poignant similarities to Reagan’s New Deal conservatism.”
Olsen is at his most effective when he contrasts the anti-government absolutism of Barry Goldwater with the more nuanced rhetoric of Reagan. It was no accident, Olsen implies, that Goldwater won six states in the 1964 presidential election, while Reagan won 49 in 1984.
Take the example of health care. Most readers of Olsen’s book will be surprised to learn that Reagan embraced universal coverage. In “A Time for Choosing” — Reagan’s celebrated conservative manifesto delivered at Goldwater’s 1964 Republican National Convention — Reagan declared, “No one in this country should be denied medical care for lack of funds.” In a speech to the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce — in Goldwater’s backyard — Reagan said, “Any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him.”
While Reagan opposed “compulsory health insurance through a government bureau for people who don’t need it or who have . . . even a few million dollars tucked away,” he championed the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, a law introduced by two Democrats that gave federal money to states with which to provide medical care for the elderly in need. Reagan said that he was “in favor of this bill — and if the money isn’t enough, I think we should put up more.”
Goldwater, on the other hand, brimmed with contempt for bills like Kerr-Mills, calling them in “The Conscience of a Conservative” a sinister “mixture of blackmail and bribery.”
Olsen fails to address an obvious rejoinder to his argument: that the same policies, in different eras, can represent different directions for the country. In 1932, a politician arguing for the New Deal was outlandishly left wing; in 1980, a politician arguing for a reversion to the New Deal was outlandishly right wing.
Olsen is confusing when he tries to draw policy lessons for today’s Republicans from Reagan’s philosophy. He slams House Speaker Paul Ryan’s approach to entitlement reform, even though it is entirely consistent with Reagan’s belief that voluntary programs are superior to compulsory ones and that private businesses are more responsive to ordinary people than government bureaucrats are. Olsen criticizes Obama’s support for free-trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even though Reagan was a committed free-trader.
There’s one huge difference between FDR and Reagan that Olsen entirely ignores: their appeal to African Americans. In 1932, Republican Herbert Hoover won a majority of blacks. By 1936, Democrat FDR had captured 71 percent of the black vote. Reagan succeeded at appealing to the white working class but failed to reverse the GOP’s decline among minorities.
There is a strong case that “The Working Class Republican” tries to solve the wrong problem. The GOP has done quite well with the white working class: in the South and the West for years, and now in the Rust Belt with Trump. But many Republican voters resent the growing number of Americans — equally hard-working — whose ancestors came here from somewhere other than Europe. On where the GOP went wrong with minorities, and how to win them back, Olsen has almost nothing to say.
But he captures, in a way few Reagan biographers have, the Gipper’s eloquent calls for Washington to actively take the side of those who struggle in the modern economy. Today’s Republicans — the ones who pepper their speeches with the name “Reagan” — would be well-served to reflect on Olsen’s insights.
By Henry Olsen
Broadside. 345 pp. $27.99