Modern Republicanism and its Liberal Forefathers

Elections are around the corner and, as always, all talk will be centered around the Republican and Democratic parties, others need not waste their time. Party candidates will take a position in the great political spectrum of Conservative vs. Liberal ideology and lay personal claims to this creed of “right vs. left”.

These regularly scheduled programs are little more than political exercises to preserve the false notion of democratic elections in the U.S., but even more sinister, it’s the time when our leaders give us the words and their definitions to use until the next mass exercise.

What do I mean?

What if I was to say that Conservative ideology has drifted so far to the right that in today’s GOP, Nixon would be deemed a flaming radical which would prevent him for consideration even into the Democratic party?

What if I was to say that the godfather of modern Republicanism (Reagan) would be far too liberal for the modern GOP and would end up somewhere on the left?

True Conservatives or true Liberals do not exist. As the definition of these terms change over time so do the persons who profess these ideologies. These terms have been abused throughout decades and have morphed into little more than political jargon for the masses to repeat.

Let’s look at some history:

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was a transformative president, partly because of his policies but mainly because he presided over the two most disruptive events of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II.

By the time the Republican Eisenhower took office, people craved stability and he was determined to give it to them. This angered his fellow Republicans, who wanted nothing more than to repeal Roosevelt’s New Deal, root and branch. And with control of both the House and Senate in 1953 and 1954, he could have undone a lot of it if he wanted to.

But Eisenhower not only refused to repeal the New Deal, he wouldn’t even let Republicans in Congress cut taxes even though the high World War II and Korean War rates were in effect. Eisenhower thought that a balanced budget should take priority. Eisenhower also helped to destroy right wing hero Joe McCarthy and worked closely with liberals on civil rights.

Eisenhower’s effective liberalism was deeply frustrating to conservatives. Robert Welch of the John Birch Society even accused him of being a communist. But after Republicans lost control of Congress in 1954, he was the only game in town for them.

By 1964, conservatives got control of the GOP’s nominating process and put forward one of their own, Barry Goldwater, to complete the unfinished work of repealing the New Deal that Eisenhower refused to do. But he lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, who quickly capitalized on his victory by doubling down on the New Deal with the Great Society.

Although Johnson was done in by Vietnam, his domestic liberalism was as popular in 1968 as the New Deal had been in 1952. Nevertheless, conservatives deluded themselves that Nixon would repeal the Great Society. But just as Eisenhower cemented the New Deal in place, Nixon accepted the legitimacy of the Great Society. His goal was to make it work efficiently and shave off the rough edges.

But just how radical was Richard Nixon?

  • Nixon expanded the welfare state by expanding its regulatory reach through the Environmental Protection Agency and other new government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise.
  • He was a keen foreign policy type whose diplomatic efforts strengthened our relationships with both established and emerging world powers.
  • He implemented the first significant federal affirmative action program.
  • He dramatically increased spending on federal employee salaries.
  • He oversaw the first large-scale integration of public schools in the South (something Conservatives are not too happy about).
  • He proposed a guaranteed annual wage (aka a “negative income tax”).
  • He advocated comprehensive national health insurance (single payer) for all Americans.
  • He imposed wage and price controls in times of economic crisis. This wasn’t a terribly good idea, but it was the furthest thing from a Conservative idea. Truth is, it was positively socialist.
  • He indexed Social Security for inflation and created Supplemental Security Income.
  • He promoted the Legacy of Parks program.
  • He appointed four Supreme Court Justices. Three of them voted with the majority in Roe v. Wade!

Conservatives were infuriated by Nixon’s supposed betrayal, but lacking control of Congress they were stuck with him just as they had been with Eisenhower. Not very many were upset when Watergate pushed Nixon out of office.

Conservatives finally got the president they had always hoped for when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. But by then, key New Deal/Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare were so deeply embedded in government and society that he never lifted a finger to dismantle them. Reagan even raised taxes 10 times to keep them funded!

Let’s take a look at Reagan’s record, shall we?

  • Taxes: Although modern Republicans have posthumously deified Reagan as the patron saint of tax cuts, he actually signed at least 10 tax increases totaling $132.7 billion during his eight years as president, and had raised taxes several times before that as governor of California.
  • Immigration: Reagan granted legal status to about three million undocumented immigrants when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. If you’d like to know what the right’s criticism might have sounded like, look no further than Tea Party representative Steve King (R-IA), who recently blamed the ’86 reform for President Obama’s election.
  • Gun Reform: Even if Reagan had somehow managed to survive all of the other issues on this list, his support for expanded gun sale background checks and an assault weapon ban would certainly have killed his chances of winning over the GOP base. Although Reagan — who was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981 — makes for a sympathetic gun reform advocate, if Republicans can attack Sandy Hook parents, they could certainly have gone after the Gipper.
  • The Deficit: Modern Republicans tend to portray the federal budget deficit as an economic and moral issue of the highest importance — an attitude that Reagan echoed when he declared the deficit to be “out of control” shortly after taking office in January, 1981. Once he was in the Oval Office, however, Reagan began enacting policies that would infamously lead Vice President Dick Cheney to scoff that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” Within two years the deficit had nearly tripled, reaching $208 billion, and by the time Reagan left office it was at $155 billion; during Reagan’s two terms America went from being the world’s largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
  • Israel: Reagan’s complicated relationship with Israel is yet another issue on which he and the Republican Party’s right wing could never have agreed — not after the Reagan administration called on Israel to adopt a total settlement freeze and place its nuclear facilities under international supervision, and sold highly advanced military jets to Saudi Arabia. Not to mention Reagan’s 1985 trip to Germany, where he initially declined to visit the site of a concentration camp but agreed to lay a wreath at a cemetery containing the remains of 49 members of the Waffen-SS. As Haaretz‘s Chemi Salev put it, “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

Do you still believe that Nixon or Reagan would have made it on today’s Republican establishment? I’d be surprised if they even make it to the Democratic side. I argue that If either of these men were candidates in the upcoming election, they would be more progressive than either the Republican or Democratic nominees.

Now, let’s look at the other side of the political spectrum:

Liberals initially viewed Bill Clinton the same way conservatives viewed Eisenhower – as a liberator who would reverse the awful policies of his two predecessors. But almost immediately, Clinton decided that deficit reduction would be the first order of business in his administration. His promised middle class tax cut and economic stimulus were abandoned.

By 1995, Democrat Clinton was working with Republicans to dismantle welfare. In 1997, he supported a cut in the capital gains tax. As the benefits of his 1993 deficit reduction package took effect, budget deficits disappeared and we had the first significant surpluses in memory. Yet Clinton steadfastly refused to spend any of the flood of revenues coming into the Treasury, hording them like a latter day Midas. In the end, his administration was even more conservative than Eisenhower’s on fiscal policy.

The fiscal conservatism of the Clinton years led to an explosion of tax cuts under Republican George W. Bush, who supported every one that came down the pike. The result was massive federal deficits and a tanking economy. For a party that prides itself on fiscal responsibility, they sure are pretty awful at it.

If increases in government spending matter, then Bush is worse than any president in recent history. During his first four years in office—a period during which his party controlled Congress—he added a whopping $345 billion (in constant dollars) to the federal budget. The only other presidential term that comes close? Bush’s second term. As of November 2008, he had added at least an additional $287 billion on top of that (and the months since then will add significantly to the bill). To put that in perspective, consider that the spendthrift LBJ added a mere $223 billion in total additional outlays in his one full term.

Conservatives demand smaller government so that the everyday “Joe” can live out his life without Big Brother constantly on his back. Conservative Bush not only increased the size of the government to historical proportions, but he also implemented legislation (Patriot Act) and created Federal agencies designed to help Big Brother keep a better eye on our private lives. At a minimum, Bush’s Conservative Republicanism taught us that government can always get bigger on every level and in every way.

Obama took office under roughly the same political and economic circumstances that Nixon did in 1968 except in a mirror opposite way. Instead of being forced to manage a slew of new liberal spending programs, as Nixon did, Obama had to cope with a revenue structure that had been decimated by Republicans.

Liberals hoped that Obama would overturn conservative policies and launch a new era of government activism. Although Republicans routinely accuse him of being a socialist, an honest examination of his presidency must conclude that he has in fact been moderately conservative:

  • His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
  • He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
  • He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
  • He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
  • He increased the Federal Government’s ability to spy on U.S. citizens without regard to civil liberties.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it’s painfully obvious that the terms Liberal and Conservative are very subjective and often change with time. Somehow, yesterday’s Liberals are today’s Conservatives and vice versa. The terms are as meaningless as the persons who hold such positions.

Today’s political candidates are either unaware of their country’s political history or are completely ignoring it in order to advance their interests. Either way, it’s not good for the voters. Let’s stop this false notion of left vs. right, be honest about the past and maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Thanks for reading,


  1. If Nixon Were Alive Today, He Would Be Far Too Liberal to Get Even the Democratic Nomination
  2. Bush Was a Big-Government Disaster
  3. Barack Obama: The Democrats’ Richard Nixon?

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