In 2009 the star attraction at the conservative gabfest CPAC was Rush Limbaugh, and in 2010 it was Glenn Beck. This year's scene-stealer couldn't make it in person. That would be Ronald Reagan:
A smiling life-size wax figure of President Ronald Reagan watched over Friday's banquet, continuous loops of his greatest speeches played at a booth in the exhibit hall - "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - and college Republicans who were not even born when the man was in office snapped up Reagan posters.
Tim Pawlenty said that "Barack Obama is not behaving like Ronald Reagan, he's behaving like Jimmy Carter." (Must be the pending solar panels on the White House roof.) "I hate to tell this to our friends at MSNBC: Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan," Newt Gingrich told CPAC. Two weeks earlier, Mitt Romney wrote in a USA Today op-ed: "Reagan's legacy is very much alive. Only amiable dunces cannot see that."
OK, then. The message from the GOP is pretty clear, that America will not move forward unless the Republican Party comes to its senses and nominates a 21st-Century clone of Reagan. A couple of years ago there was a failed push for an ideological litmus test for GOP candidates -- which perhaps fell short because of some evidence that Reagan himself might not have passed it.
Since I spent a good bit of time recently researching the Gipper's actual record for my book -- "Tear Down This Myth: The Right-Wing Distortion of the Reagan Legacy" -- I decided to help by preparing this simple, 10-question litmus test for the GOP's Reagan 2.0 -- one that Reagan himself would have definitely scored 100 percent on. Anyone today who scores 10 out of 10 can pass the White House and proceed directly to Mount Rushmore.
1. Will you pledge to create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants now in the country?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. The 40th president signed the Immigration Reform and Control act in 1986. His former attorney general Edwin Meese said later: "President Reagan called this what it was: amnesty." Ultimately, the law provided a pathway to citizenship and the American middle class for at least 2.7 million workers who were already in the United States.
2. Will you support the concept that accused terrorists should be tried in American criminal courts and not military tribunals?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. In 1987, Reagan administration official Paul Bremer, later to be our grand poobah in Iraq, told the Council on Foreign Relations (PDF file) that ""a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy's most potent tool, the rule of law against them."
3. If the federal deficit continues to grow, would you be willing to consider raising taxes to address the problem?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. As is widely known among progressives (but among conservatives, not so much), Reagan signed a series of tax hikes as president, including several aimed at undoing the deficit damage caused after his 1981 tax cut, which delivered its major dollar savings to the wealthiest Americans. Even the Business Roundtable urged Reagan to sign the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, which at the time was the largest peacetime tax increase in U.S. history.
4. Will you support legislation to end the scourge of assault rifles in America?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did -- albeit after leaving the White House. In 1994, in one of last public acts before disclosing his Alzheimer's disease, Reagan joined ex-presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in pleading with Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons (which they did...for ten years). The letter stated: ""We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons."
5. Will you promise to oppose the use of torture -- no matter what the circumstance?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. In 1988, Reagan signed the International Convention Against Torture, which was later ratified by the Senate. The measure states that under "[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
6. Will you appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold Roe v. Wade as the rule of the land on abortion?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. While it's true that the Gipper appointed extreme conservative Antonin Scalia to the High Court, his other two successful nominations -- Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy -- were the deciding votes in reaffirming Roe v. Wade in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood V. Casey. Indeed, Reagan shrugged off conservative complaints at the time of O'Connor's 1983 nomination that she wasn't sufficiently anti-abortion. "I think she'll make a good justice," he wrote.
7. As president, will you do what's necessary to save Social Security as we know it?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. For all his early rhetoric about rolling back FDR's New Deal, Reagan shifted gears in 1983 to reach a deal with Democrats to not only keep Social Security afloat for decades to come but actually expanding the program by including federal workers for the first time. He did this by increasing payroll taxes and by taxing the Social Security benefits of the wealthiest Americans.
8. Do you promise not to keep American troops in harm's way in a poorly defined mission?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. In 1983, Reagan sent U.S. Marines to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force aimed at saving a fragile truce between elements of the PLO and the Israeli military. Instead, Americans quickly found themselves terror targets, culminating in the October 1983 bombing that killed 241 of the U.S. troops. By February, Reagan "redeployed" the Marines to ships offshore, later writing "[p]erhaps we didn't appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle."
9. Will you use the power of your office to protect the environment?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did -- at least as governor of California in the 1960s and 1970s. It's true that Reagan's record on the ecology as president was pretty abysmal, but his performance in Sacramento was surprisingly good. From blocking overdevelopment of Lake Tahoe to backing stricter emissions on autos, Governor Reagan endorsed a slew of measures that cleaned up the Golden State back then but would have provoked the ire of Tea Partiers today.
10. Will you make as your greatest priority the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the world?
Because that's what Ronald Reagan did. "My dream became a world free of nuclear weapons," Reagan wrote in his memoirs -- but as commander-in-chief he did more than just talk the talk. As his presidency progressed, Reagan toned down much of his early bellicose rhetoric and focused hard on arms reduction. A sweeping nuclear weapons elimination plan fell just short at his 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland, but he later reached historic deals on eliminating intermediate-range missiles in Europe and reducing the number of warheads.
I think we can agree in our muddled political environment of 2011 that any candidate who could answer "yes" to all 10 of these questions would make America a much better place than it's become in recent years. Heck, we all know that even Barack Obama on the Democratic side would struggle to get a perfect score, especially on the foreign policy questions. Too bad -- and too bad that today's Tea-addled Republicans would be unlikely to emulate their beloved Gipper on even a single one of these. Who would have guessed that a 10-point progressive roadmap to a new and improved America is a hidden treasure buried within the bronze image of Ronald Reagan?