How Right Is Reagan?

The GOP platform is a curious mixture of pragmatism and purity.


What could we expect from Ronald Reagan in the White House? To what extent would a Reagan administration continue traditional Republican policies, as opposed to branching out in new directions inspired by the various forces contending for influence within the ranks—the populist New Right, the sophisticated neoconservatives, and the libertarians?

Although it makes sense not to take party platforms very seriously as predictors of action, the 1980 GOP document—and the speeches at the convention that shaped it—can still give us some clues about the divergent strains of thought contending for Ronald Reagan's soul. And that combination ends up being a mixed bag as far as liberty is concerned.

Although the GOP expresses generous concern for individual rights and responsibilities—in convention speeches William Simon denounced government "coercion" and Reagan himself called for restoration of "the American spirit of voluntary service"—when it comes to expressions of individual choice the GOP speaks with a starkly different voice. The party today enthusiastically supports government suppression of drugs and drug paraphernalia and favors a nationwide ban on abortions. At the convention, concern over morality never extended to the propriety of such instances of coercion as taxation, regulation, or minimum-wage laws.

Republicans today find themselves in greatest agreement on foreign and defense policy. (This section of their platform, termed "Peace and Freedom," was approved in a mere one and a half hours.) The GOP is now committed to a "superior" defense, which, if it means overall superiority, rather than qualitative excellence, could portend an arms race: the Soviets—not unreasonably—may reject "inferiority."

To attain a "superior" defense, Reagan and the GOP are calling for a massive arms buildup, including: the MX missile, manned strategic bomber, air defense system, accelerated cruise missile, antiballistic missile system, Mid-East presence, improved navy, improved air and sea mobility, modernization and increased production of armor, and increased airlift capability. Some of these programs are undoubtedly cost-effective and necessary for our defense—but all of them?

Moreover, the Republicans promise to promote American influence in virtually every continent, as part of what Senator Richard Lugar has termed an "effective free-world alliance." Yet many of these allied countries are ruled by what Gerald Ford once described as "assassins" and "despots." Why US taxpayers should be forced to protect a world full of despots has never been adequately explained.

Although debate over the ERA and abortion attracted most of the media attention at the convention, the GOP does have notable positions on domestic issues that are more significant. For instance, the platform excoriates Jimmy Carter for deliberately causing a recession. Republicans have now solidly embraced tax-rate cuts, accelerated depreciation, spending limitations, and budget balancing. Rep. Jack Kemp's economic-oriented speech was one of the highlights of the convention.

The Republicans are also taking out after "Big Government," noting that the government's power to tax and regulate has "reached extravagant proportions." House Minority Leader Rhodes speaks of lavish and reckless spending boosting taxation to "nearly confiscatory levels," and even John Connally has denounced "privilege and special interest, living off the bounty of the federal government."

The irony, of course, is that for eight years Republican presidents presided over, and in large part approved, massive increases in spending and regulation. And this year the Republicans advocate significant new government spending on defense and veterans' programs, rental housing construction, drug enforcement, transportation, an unemployment "safety-net," water projects, and the arts and humanities.

On the other hand, except for three omissions—nuclear power subsidies, Department of Energy abolition, and windfall profits tax repeal—the GOP platform's energy section faithfully reflects the free-market alternative. Indeed, following an eloquent attack on arbitrary regulation by Michigan Republican Dave Stockman, who had done most of the work on the energy section, the platform delegates even voted to repeal the 55 mile per hour speed limit.

Again, however, Republicans' blaming Democrats, and even Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker's call for "freeing free enterprise to produce again," are curious. For was it not Eisenhower who vetoed natural-gas deregulation? Nixon who imposed oil price controls? Ford who signed the extension of the Federal Energy Agency and natural-gas regulation and proposed a $100 billion federal energy program? and Baker who voted for the Department of Energy and the windfall profits tax? Reagan and the Republicans may offer a better future, but Republicans and Democrats together caused the dismal present.

CONTENDING FORCES One of the interesting conflicts in today's Republican Party is between conservative purists and conservative pragmatists. North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, representing the forces of righteousness, argues that "what is at stake is not simply the principles of a party, but the principles of a nation." In contrast, pragmatists like Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and former Ambassador Anne Armstrong, emphasize Republican Party unity and victory.

This conflict was apparent during the convention's platform debates, where delegates occasionally heeded but more often ignored appeals for moderation. For example, delegates rejected a proposal, offered by frequent REASON contributor John McClaughry, to dismantle local public-transit monopolies, and they withdrew a plank supporting the "Sagebrush Rebellion." At the same time, though, a teacher-delegate from Rhode Island proposed eliminating the federal Department of Education; after politely listening to congressmen and senators discuss flexibility, lost votes, and negativism, the delegates proceeded to pass the amendment.

Ronald Reagan has managed to fuse these two strains of purity and pragmatism, cloaking his past stands with moderate rhetoric while calling for a new consensus based on a shared "community of values." The most lasting result of the Reagan candidacy, however, will not likely be the issues debated, but the people debating.

Ronald Reagan, of course, may lead to victory a united Republican Party committed to partial domestic deregulation and substantial foreign intervention. George Bush, because of his presidential campaign and selection as vice-presidential nominee, is now positioned for a presidential race in 1984 or beyond.

Rep. Jack Kemp has established himself as a potential Bush rival. His convention speech won rave reviews; his chairmanship of the foreign policy platform subcommittee dispelled his "johnny-one-note" image; and his adept overall performance won him new credibility.

Bob Dole, veteran of a disastrous vice-presidential race four years ago, this year has begun his rehabilitation through sponsorship of platform planks on minorities, the handicapped, and the auto industry, as well as his accessibility and eye for publicity. Finally, Jesse Helms has firmly grasped the leadership of the moral and foreign policy hardliners—a group too small to dictate but too large to be ignored.

The Republican Party of Ronald Reagan may soon hold the reins of national power. Republicans often sound like they are firmly committed to individual liberty. In practice, they embrace policies going in all directions. But their potential for advancing liberty on some fronts should not be ignored.

Doug Bandow is an attorney and a freelance writer.