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Will the Real Ronald Reagan Please Stand Up?

By: Steven F. Hayward
August 17, 2017

enry Olsen’s revisionist thesis in The Working-Class Republican is that Ronald Reagan’s political career was devoted to perpetuating rather than repudiating Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. “The man many label as the twentieth century’s most conservative president,” Olsen contends, “was more than a casual backer of FDR.”

Working-Class Republican should be understood in the context of Olsen’s warnings, repeated frequently over the past decade, that Republicans were failing utterly to offer a compelling message or policy agenda for “Reagan Democrats,” the white working-class voters crucial to the landslide victories of 1980 and ’84. Instead, Olsen warns, the GOP has focused on the investor class and entrepreneurs. Whatever the abstract merits of that approach, it overlooks the simple fact that most voters are not entrepreneurs, but employees, averse to risk-taking. And the optics are as bad as the policies. When challenging Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee said pointedly, “I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.”

By degrees, Olsen figured out that interpreting Reagan was like viewing an Impressionist painting: only by stepping back could we see the picture correctly. Virtually all Republicans today represent themselves as Reaganites, but what if they are looking only at narrow brushstrokes?

Olsen’s is the latest revisionist account of Reagan, and by far the boldest. Gene Kopelson has argued that Dwight Eisenhower was Reagan’s most decisive influence and model, Irving Kristol that he was the first neoconservative, and such liberal writers as Richard Reeves and John Patrick Diggins that he really was a pragmatic moderate after all. Has Olsen unearthed the Reagan Rosetta stone?

Olsen has more to worry about from those who endorse his thesis than from those who reject it. Recent liberal fans will use Reagan’s supposed “pragmatism” to attack Republicans for moving far to the right. Reagan could not win the GOP nomination if he was a candidate today, they claim. In 2009, an audacious Jonathan Rauch National Journal article argued that because Reagan compromised with the opposition, agreed to some tax increases (but never the ones the liberals wanted) and fell short of some of his declared goals (such as a balanced budget), he was not a Reaganite. Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in the Los Angeles Times, also concluded that Reagan’s greatness “rested precisely in his readiness to abandon his conservative principles.” This transparently insincere charge, embraced by people never fond of Reagan or conservative principles, has managed to gain plausibility through sheer repetition in liberal media echo chambers. This faction will treat Working-Class Republican as a vindication.

Orthodox conservatives, on the other hand, think Reagan represented a direct lineage to Barry Goldwater and the self-conscious conservative “movement” that began to take shape in the 1950s, the time when Reagan was changing his political views. The apotheosis of this Reagan is his remark in an interview with Reason magazine in 1975: “I believe that the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” Olsen uses Reagan’s own deeds and words, even from that same Reason interview, to make clear that Reaganism cannot be reduced to libertarianism. Olsen is right to direct our attention to Reagan’s departures from a schematic conservative or libertarian orthodoxy, both in rhetoric and policy choices. Due to his dazzling success, conservatives have come to treat Reagan as the embodiment of their cause, as well as the model for aspiring Republican politicians, thereby distracting us from the idiosyncratic conservatism that was the product of an utterly unique mind. The question of authentic Reaganism goes beyond historical interest or ideological nostalgia, since it bears on the deep confusion conservatives and the Republican Party feel in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s nomination and election. This question is at the heart of Working-Class Republican.

Olsen is not the first to emphasize the continuity between FDR and Reagan. Richard Neustadt, a leading presidential scholar for decades at Harvard, called Reagan “a New Deal Republican” very early in Reagan’s presidency. And then there’s a significant comment Reagan made in his diary in January 1982, when he was under attack for his proposed budget cuts: “The press is dying to paint me as now trying to undo the New Deal. I remind them I voted for FDR 4 times. I’m trying to undo the ‘Great Society.’ It was LBJ’s war on poverty that led to our present mess.”

This statement is true if deduced from most of Reagan’s actions as governor and president. With only two partial exceptions, he did not attempt to alter New Deal-era social insurance programs in any significant way. First, Reagan made a half-hearted, half-baked attempt to scale back Social Security in 1981, and then expressed disappointment in his diary that the Greenspan Commission he appointed to extricate him from this political mistake did not propose bolder reforms. Second, in 1985 Reagan’s budget proposal unsuccessfully attempted a serious cutback of New Deal-era farm subsidies. By contrast, he rebuffed a 1986 GOP effort on Capitol Hill to curtail Social Security and Medicare.

Reagan was fond of saying, publicly, that “we launched a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Nonetheless, the oft-cited diary entry about the New Deal and Great Society doesn’t quite parse. Reagan was giving speeches against overweening government, and worrying about the implicit socialism of Democratic liberalism, well before the Great Society was launched in the early 1960s. He wrote to Richard Nixon in 1960 about John F. Kennedy: “Under that tousled boyish haircut is still old Karl Marx—first launched a century ago.” Was Reagan somehow clairvoyant, anticipating what liberalism would become under the Great Society?

Sorting out Olsen’s argument requires, first, asking whether it’s too broad ... or too narrow. Reagan himself said that FDR was his model for how to conduct the presidency, especially in its public dimensions. Reagan praised FDR’s fireside chats. Entirely novel when FDR started them, Reagan emulated their style and conversational format, especially FDR’s confidence-inducing disposition. Though Reagan’s admiration for FDR may have been more a matter of style than substance, the style of presidential leadership should not be deprecated. As Winston Churchill said, “Meeting Roosevelt was like taking your first sip of champagne.” (I’ve often wondered how much the end of Prohibition was an unquantifiable boost to FDR’s presidency.) Nevertheless, the contrast with Roosevelt’s Democratic successors today is obvious; Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are more like a gulp of castor oil.

Olsen would not disagree, but his case rests on substance over style. Reagan’s long-time economic adviser Martin Anderson once told me that despite Reagan’s general kind words for FDR and the New Deal, he could not recall Reagan ever endorsing a specific New Deal policy, though Olsen’s account provides a different answer to this question. But if anyone wants to see Reagan as the heir of the New Deal, he has to get past one of Reagan’s most famous critiques of it—his 1976 remark that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.” Democrats lustily seized upon this remark to make trouble for Reagan in 1980, and the media obliged by hounding Reagan about it in “news analysis” articles. Rather than backpedal, Reagan, to his campaign managers’ consternation, stoutly defended his comments. In August 1980 Reagan told dumbfounded reporters: “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system. . .  They thought that private ownership with government management and control a la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings.” This was, Reagan added, “long before fascism became a dirty word in the lexicon of the liberals.”

If Reagan’s guiding purpose really was the continuation and elaboration of the New Deal, we should first clarify the New Deal’s meaning. For one thing, if Olsen is right, his larger argument goes beyond Reagan and makes us confront more directly how the Democratic Party has abandoned the New Deal, even if it defends its programs from any reform today. Reagan liked to say, from his earliest days in politics, that “I didn’t leave my party—my party left me.” This has been dismissed as mere rhetoric, but Olsen’s analysis makes us take it more seriously, since it explains why many Trump voters abandoned the Democratic Party in the belief that it has abandoned the New Deal.

And it suggests there is a breathtaking opportunity for conservatives, if only they would realize it. If today’s liberals are going to give up on liberalism, why not steal FDR away from them—returning the Democrats’ favor. In the 1930s, for example, FDR said, “I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own.” In one of his last speeches as president in October 1988, Reagan put it this way:

The party of F.D.R. and Harry Truman couldn’t be killed. The party that represents people like you and me, that represents the majority of Americans—this party hasn’t disappeared. The fact is we’re stronger than ever. You see, the secret is that when the Left took over the Democratic Party, we took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the party of working people; the family; the neighborhood; the defense of freedom; and, yes, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to “one nation under God.” So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists, except that today it’s called the Republican Party.

So what was the New Deal? There are some good conservative accounts of it, such as Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man (2007) and New Deal or Raw Deal? (2008) by Burt Folsom. Conrad Black offers the only conservative biography of FDR, finding him a “champion of freedom,” but chiefly on the basis of his World War II role rather than the domestic issues that interest Olsen. Perhaps the best book about the deeper domestic politics of the New Deal from a conservative point of view is one of the oldest, Raymond Moley’s After Seven Years (1939), which told of his disillusionment with the New Deal’s descent into decay and corruption after a good beginning.

At a minimum, the New Deal can be said to comprise four essential attributes: 1) Keynesian counter-cyclical spending (partly in the form of public works); 2) immediate relief from destitution and new long-term social insurance (especially Social Security); 3) more aggressive and centralized regulation of industries in ways that at times verged on direct economic planning (this was the fascistic part—think of the National Industrial Recovery Act); and 4) putting the New Deal’s programmatic machinery to partisan uses, culminating in the perpetual motion machine captured by Harry Hopkins’s famous slogan, “Tax, tax, spend, spend, elect, elect.”

Of these four aspects, Reagan really only matches up well with 2), relief from destitution and support for social insurance. He had no truck with Keynesian spending, and always recoiled at government regulation. But Olsen’s on to something important regarding Reagan’s acceptance of social insurance. In fact, he could have made this main point even stronger. The New Deal emphasized work, even putting people on the government payroll if necessary, but was also willing to provide support for people unable to work, like mothers and the elderly. With the exception of his fondness for punitively high tax rates, Roosevelt was not a redistributionist. Roosevelt’s social insurance outlook implicitly operated according the old distinction, which Reagan occasionally made explicit, between the “deserving poor” and those who had no legitimate claim to public assistance. Olsen rightly points to the example of Governor Reagan’s California welfare reforms, which coupled tighter eligibility standards and a work requirement for able-bodied adults with larger welfare grants for the “truly needy.”

Working-Class Republican dwells on Reagan’s frequent use of the term “social safety net” (Olsen’s emphasis), though the “social” modifier is unnecessary to understand Reagan’s meaning. I once did a word search of presidential statements throughout the 20th century using the phrase “safety net.” Hoover used it twice, and that’s about it. As far as I can tell, FDR never uttered the words. Reagan revived this term, though some recent articles give him credit for originating it. (The “safety net” formulation may trace back to Churchill during his Liberal Party reformist period from 1904-1910.)

The central fact about Reagan’s use of the term is that in the 1980s the Left hated it, because it represented a rebuke to income redistribution, a commitment that had gradually taken hold of the Democratic Party. Recall the National Welfare Rights Organization and the rise of social programs as entitlements in the 1960s. When Reagan opposed Nixon’s guaranteed annual income proposal, the Family Assistance Plan, in 1969 and 1970—the only governor in the country to do so—he said in a TV debate that “I believe that the government is supposed to promote the general welfare; I don’t think it is supposed to provide it.” If welfare was centralized in Washington, Reagan knew, reform would be all but impossible and there would be a bias toward increased spending in the future. “It would only be the first installment,” Reagan observed. “Raising the annual family grant would become an election-year must.” Despite Reagan’s intense and active opposition, the Family Assistance Plan was primarily killed by the Left, because its income transfer was too small. Some smart leftists today recognize this failure to get a foot in the door as their single biggest strategic blunder of the last 50 years.

“If there is one area of social policy,” Reagan began to say in his standard stump speech, “that should be at the most local level of government possible, it is welfare. It should not be nationalized—it should be localized.” Reagan practiced what he preached, and preached what he practiced. While president, it was not unusual for him to send personal checks to citizens who wrote about their their hard times in letters his correspondence unit selected for him to read. In one 1982 speech, Reagan argued that if every church and synagogue in America adopted one poor household it would not only reach everyone in need but would do a much better job providing help than a government bureaucracy. In another 1982 speech to the NAACP (amidst a fierce recession), Reagan argued that the Great Society had done more harm than good for black Americans. Liberals howled with indignation about both of these heresies.

In the 1930s leftists complained that FDR “saved capitalism” and prevented a socialist revolution by his palliatives. It is not a stretch to see him in alignment with Reagan on this point. While FDR oversaw the launch of the federal government’s largest welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), he recognized the moral hazard of unqualified relief, remarking about the risk of dependency and perverse results from an undisciplined welfare state. As he told Congress in 1935:

The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.... It is in violation of the traditions of America.

Reagan quoted this remark a few times during his campaigns in the 1970s (along with FDR’s embrace of a balanced budget in the 1932 campaign), to the annoyance of Ted Kennedy and Arkansas’s young governor Bill Clinton, Democrats who bitterly protested Reagan’s larceny. Reagan put it this way in his memoirs: “Franklin Roosevelt, Jr., often told me that his father had said many times his welfare and relief programs during the Depression were meant only as emergency, stopgap measures to cope with a crisis, not the seeds of what others later tried to turn into a permanent welfare state.” Certainly today the utilization of Food Stamps and disability has grown out of proportion, and have become ersatz general welfare programs, both contributing to the opioid epidemic in ways FDR warned against.

Olsen’s case rests on a careful reading of Reagan’s speeches and articles, noting subtleties and distinctions that escape many readers. In the 1960s Reagan never attacked the Great Society without offering his sharply contrasting positive alternative: the Creative Society, based on self-governing citizens’ initiative, wherein “government will lead but not rule, listen but not lecture.” As he put in in his first inaugural address in 1981, government exists to “work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride our back.” Now and then Reagan’s heirs have attempted to emulate this practice. One thinks of Newt Gingrich’s “Opportunity Society” in the 1980s and Paul Ryan’s “Ownership Society” more recently. But neither is as capacious as Reagan’s outlook, nor were they sustained rhetorically. (Reagan was a big believer in repetition, something that Donald Trump almost alone seems to understand instinctively.) The biggest defect of liberalism in the post-New Deal era is that it has no limiting principle. There is no social problem for which there isn’t a new or expanded government program, and for which money isn’t the core of the solution. Reagan understood the need for limits and discipline, cautioning in 1967: “The time has come for us to decide whether collectively we can afford everything and anything simply because we think of it.”

Equally significant is how, as Olsen notes, Reagan rarely used the term “conservative” in his general public speeches, or even “Republican.” He restricted his use of these terms to select audiences, like party gatherings or Conservative Political Action Conferences. His famous “Time for Choosing” speech is the model for his unique and effective rhetorical practice. Olsen is correct to distinguish the conservatism of Reagan’s “Time for Choosing,” more personal and narrative in form, from Goldwater’s abstract anti-New Dealism. While a deeply conservative speech in most ways, Reagan declaimed that it was neither partisan nor ideological, but a matter of plain common sense.

While this distinction might not survive close logical analysis, as a matter of practical political rhetoric Reagan was undoubtedly correct. One can see the parallel in Barack Obama’s “no red America, no blue America” theme in his famous 2004 keynote speech. It explains Reagan’s enduring appeal to millions of non-ideological voters who have no difficulty supporting the general principle of government assistance for struggling citizens, but oppose the abuses of government programs that most liberals deny or dismiss. (One of the few liberals who took the problem seriously was Bill Clinton, who ran on “ending welfare as we know it” in 1992. He understood that working-class voters resented an out-of-control welfare state, and in 1996 acceded to the Reaganite welfare reform plan devised by congressional Republicans.)

Reagan would never have used “makers and takers,” the phrase that caught conservatives’ fancy for a time under Obama. Recall how Mitt Romney’s infamous remark about the “47 percent”—another comment Reagan would never have made—crippled his campaign. The lesson here is that conservatives like Ted Cruz who boast of being “Reagan conservatives” on the stump are talking in a way that Reagan himself never did. No one can imagine Reagan calling himself a “Coolidge conservative.”

Beyond the programmatic considerations Olsen explores, there is more to be said about FDR’s overall political philosophy. Doing so is tricky, in part because a consistent Roosevelt hard to find, and Reagan was nothing if not consistent for most of his political life. Nearly every historian likes to focus on FDR’s changes of course and improvisations, as exemplified in his endorsement of “bold, persistent experimentation.” Shlaes concludes, on this basis, that FDR was “intellectually unstable.”

But it is possible to make out a serious core to FDR’s thought, especially in his 1932 Commonwealth Club Address. There, Roosevelt partly repudiated Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism (especially its rejection of individualism and the American Founding), while embracing the defective political economy of Progressivism, which held that the era of competitive entrepreneurial capitalism was over. FDR’s orientation toward preserving middle-class and working-class opportunity is paramount in his outlook, supporting the case that the New Deal was conservative of the American political tradition in ways that the Progressive Era was not. Radicals criticized the New Deal on this basis in the 1930s, and today’s Democrats have reacquired that older Progressive disdain for the American political tradition. Many now call themselves “Progressives” rather than “liberals.”

While Reagan can be said to have shared this middle-out disposition of FDR’s, two aspects of FDR’s political outlook are particularly difficult to square with Reagan’s. First, there was his language about “economic royalists” and “malefactors of great wealth.” Roosevelt had a penchant for “hunting rich men as if they were obnoxious beasts,” Churchill cautioned in an otherwise laudatory 1934 essay, which expressed enthusiasm for the New Deal and FDR’s leadership capacities. At one point early in World War II, FDR proposed a 100% income tax rate starting at $25,000 (roughly equivalent to $390,000 today). Reagan never supported punitive taxation of this kind, nor shared any of FDR’s indifference to capital investment. (Moley reported that Roosevelt especially hated talk of “business confidence.”) Reagan was always a future-oriented technophile, a believer in the innovation of entrepreneurs.

A related important contrast is between the proposals for an “Economic Bill of Rights” that both men offered as president. Roosevelt’s 1944 roster formed the core of today’s liberal agenda—a right to housing, a job, food, and health care, for starters, all requiring government provision. Such guarantees of course, efface the older liberal distinction between rights, as limitations on government power, and benefits, as privileges within the limits of resources. Reagan stood FDR’s understanding on its head in his 1987 proposal for his own Economic Bill of Rights, which harkened back to the old restraints: a balanced-budget requirement, supermajorities for tax increases, a constitutional spending limit, and an explicit prohibition on wage-and-price controls.

The second sharp, unbridgeable difference between FDR and Reagan is related to the first. FDR regarded the Constitution as an impediment to his desires, as seen by his intemperate attacks on the Supreme Court, culminating in his ill-advised court-packing scheme at the start of his second term. This was another place where Churchill criticized Roosevelt, most notably in a 1936 essay written before the court-packing scheme:

“Taking the rigidity out of the American Constitution” means, and is intended to mean, new gigantic accessions of power to the dominating center of government and giving it the means to make new fundamental laws enforceable upon all Americans.

Reagan, a thoroughgoing if early constitutional originalist, understood this point instinctively. For the New Deal’s architects, centralized regulatory power promised many benefits and few risks, though there are fragments suggesting FDR might have had misgivings. FDR remarked in 1938:

We need trained personnel in government. We need disinterested, as well as broad-gauged, public officials. This part of our problem we have not yet solved, but it can be solved and it can be accomplished without the creation of a national bureaucracy which would dominate the national life of our governmental system.

And it is nearly forgotten that FDR drew back from the full implications of his attacks on “economic royalism.” “Let me emphasize,” he also said in 1944, “that serious as have been the errors of unrestrained individualism, I do not believe in abandoning the system of individual enterprise.” On balance, Franklin Roosevelt was probably more dubious about a jihad against the malefactors of great wealth than his Republican cousin Theodore.

It should be recalled that Reagan’s announcement speech for his 1976 campaign (though not, significantly, his 1980 campaign) began with a criticism of the New Deal:

Back in the Depression years there were those who promised to overcome hard times. Franklin Delano Roosevelt embarked on a course that made bold use of government to ease the pain of those times. Although some of his measures seemed to work, he was soon moved to sound a warning.  He said, “[W]e have built new instruments of public power in the hands of the people’s government...but in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy, such power would provide shackles for the liberties of our people.”

Unfortunately, that warning went unheeded. Today, there is an economic autocracy, born of government’s growing interference in our lives. Yet Washington, for all its power, seems powerless to solve problems any more.

It would be worth knowing what Reagan had in mind by saying that some of FDR’s measures seemed to work. Reagan’s broader point connects closely with two of his favorite themes: First, that this form of centralized government would divide the nation effectively into ruling elites and “the masses.” One of his most emphatic lines in the “Time for Choosing” speech, and often repeated in his 1970s radio addresses, was “I, for one, resent it when a representative of the people refers to you and me, the free men and women of this country, as ‘the masses.’” Second, it would deform the Constitution. As he put it in a 1979 letter to a friend, “The permanent structure of our government with its power to pass regulations has eroded if not in effect repealed portions of our Constitution.”

This does not necessarily mean Olsen is wrong about Reagan and Roosevelt beyond the social insurance parallel. As Reagan himself observed, “As smart as he was, I suspect even FDR didn’t realize that once you create a bureaucracy, it took on a life of its own,” which shows Reagan’s residual regard even for FDR’s possible blind spots. Working-Class Republican maintains a tight focus on Reagan, but Olsen may not give his subject enough credit for being a more profound, independent, and original political thinker than Roosevelt, for Reagan transcends FDR in many ways. (The comparison would be even stronger if Reagan’s foreign policy philosophy and statecraft were laid next to Roosevelt’s, but that would require a separate book. It’s noteworthy that Reagan liked to quote Harry Truman in foreign policy remarks, but seldom FDR.) If anything, Reagan should be thought of more as in line with Lincoln, which Olsen nods toward in a couple of places, especially Lincoln’s inclination to “put the man before the dollar.”

More broadly, Olsen’s argument raises an important question for us to consider today: was the early conservative movement mistaken to oppose the New Deal categorically, seeking from Taft through Goldwater to roll it back in toto. If so, just where and how should conservatives anchor their philosophy of social insurance? The disjointed, demoralizing efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare show that this debate is not merely about history. Above all, it provides valuable perspective on how Donald Trump, of all people, seems to have recaptured Reagan’s ability to reach working-class voters. Trump is indeed a powerful communicator, but not in the same league as the man called “the Great Communicator.” Maybe Trump will run for reelection in 2020 as the heir of FDR, and only then will the Republican Party come out from under the distorted shadow of Reagan. Stranger things have happened lately.


Steven F. Hayward is a senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. For more information, click here