By Ed Mosca
Some conservatives contend that, among the Republican contenders for President, Mitt Romney is the most like Ronald Reagan because of Romney’s stands on abortion and gay marriage. For sure Reagan was opposed to abortion, and it’s safe to say that if Reagan were still with us today he would pronounce marriage the union of one man and one woman. And, unlike Romney, he wasn’t a flip-flopper on abortion. But if Reagan were running for President today, I don’t think that these issues would be the centerpieces of his campaign.
In Reagan’s first inaugural address he spoke these famous words: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The “present crisis” that Reagan was referring to was the double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment he had inherited from Jimmy Carter. Reagan was not proposing anarchy as he made clear later in the address: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work--work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”
The problem with government in 1980 was that it had grown too big. Again quoting Reagan’s first inaugural: “It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.” We had allowed government to grow too big because we mistakenly believed that limited government and free markets had become antiquated: “From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people.” Reagan rejected this view because he understood that America had achieved greatness “because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before.” And so he cut taxes and he slashed regulations. And by letting us keep more of our money and have more control over our lives, he made possible the greatest economic turnaround ever seen.
Romney clearly doesn’t share Reagan’s view about the role of government. His signature achievement as Governor of Massachusetts was a universal health care plan that compels everyone that government deems can afford it to purchase health insurance. Government forcing me to buy health insurance when I would rather invest the money in the stock market is exactly the type of heavy-handed government intrusion in our lives that was anathema to Reagan. Romney’s plan would also be anathema to Reagan because it is based on the misbegotten notion that government can solve any problem. Romney claims his plan is not “Hillarycare,” and would simply insure the uninsured. However, as the Cato Institute’s Mike Tanner has pointed out, “compulsory, government-defined insurance opens the door to even more widespread regulation of the health care industry and political interference in personal health care decisions. The result will be a slow but steady spiral downward toward a government run national health care system.” Romney, therefore, is no Reagan.
Someone else who is no Reagan is John McCain. His signature legislative achievement is the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. This law involves government elites in Washington D.C. deciding who gets to run ads before elections and what these ads can say. This is precisely the sort of governmental arrogance and overreaching that Reagan abhorred. And, like Romney, McCain is a flip-flopper on conservative issues. In 2001, he opposed Bush’s tax cuts, perhaps the only Reagan-like thing Bush has done as President. Now he wants to make the tax cuts permanent.
Ironically, the candidate furthest to the left on abortion and gay marriage, Rudy Giuliani, is the candidate who most adheres to Reagan’s view of the role of government. As Mayor of New York City, he reformed a broken welfare system, opposed racial quotas, cut taxes and was an advocate for school choice. That’s a pretty Reagan-like record, if you ask me.
Of course, Reagan would part company with Giuliani over abortion and gay marriage. But under the federal constitution these are supposed to be state, not federal, issues. And Giuliani has said that he would nominate judges like Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia, who would return these issues to the states. So, for practical purposes, the difference between Giuliani and Reagan on the social issues may be less than meets the eye.