Was Ronald Reagan a Flip-Flopper?

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A story in Sunday’s Post & Courier (Dec. 2) entitled “Would Reagan win today?” explored the concept of ideological purity as it relates to practical politics, and points out that even the Gipper changed his mind on a few issues during his political career.

This is true. Before he was a Republican, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat whose views on abortion, taxes and big government changed over the years, and one could even point out to shortcomings during his Presidency, where his policies didn’t always reflect his rhetoric. The same could be said of our greatest presidents, men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who struggled to reconcile the ideals of our new Republic with the political realities of the late 18th century.

It is not the wise man, but the fool who professes to have everything in this life figured out, and to be flexible and open minded is often the mark of a good statesman. Russell Kirk, who many consider the father of American conservatism, always stressed that a good statesman should be more prescriptive than ideological, that he should always do what’s best for the people, despite how it lines up with any rigid political orthodoxy.

But being a wise statesman does not mean one should not have principles and like Washington and Jefferson, Reagan was no flip-flopper. The December cover story of Harper’s Magazine entitled “Making Mitt Romney: How to Fabricate a Conservative” is a textbook study in flip-flopping, as it chronicles how a team of campaign handlers managed to repackage a man who spent his entire career as a Northeastern liberal as a born-again conservative. As the story points out, Romney himself cites Reagan’s change of heart as vindication for his own conversion, but the differences are stark. Not only did Romney magically change his convictions the very moment he decided to run for president, but Reagan had nothing to gain in 1962 by becoming a conservative. Romney’s change is transparent and there is no apparent catalyst for his conversion, unlike, as Harper’s Magazine explains “Ronald Reagan, a New Deal Democrat who joined the Republican Party in 1962 and backed Barry Goldwater for president two years later, which at the time was hardly a politically savvy move.”

Yes, far from being a flip-flopper, Reagan’s limited-government, conservative vision was not born of trying to get votes, but admiration for the philosophy of Goldwater. Like Reagan, who during his first run for president in 1976 was considered an extremist by many a Republican, as the party supported Gerald Ford, the favorite phrase amongst the mainstream press to describe Goldwater was “kook,” as the party establishment urged Reagan and others to support the much more respectable Nelson Rockefeller. Neither Reagan nor Goldwater were perfect men, but both achieved philosophical victories by sticking to their principles when it would have been easier to change them to suit the party, as most politicians do today.

There are currently a host of Republicans running for president who have changed their minds about a number of issues, but how many do you believe have done so out of true conviction, like Reagan? Or better yet, how many of these candidates, who all invoke Reagan’s name ad naseum, actually fit the following description from Barry Goldwater’s book “Conscience of a Conservative” published in 1960;

“The turn will come when we entrust the conduct of our affairs to the men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power that they have been given. It will come when Americans, in hundreds of communities throughout the nation, decide to put the man in office who is pledged to enforce the Constitution and restore the Republic. Who will proclaim in a campaign speech: 'I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel the old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.'”

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