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GOP also needs to remember the Reagan legacy

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 10, 2003

James Brolin as Ronald Reagan and Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan in the now aborted CBS mini-series "The Reagans"
James Brolin as Ronald Reagan and Judy Davis as Nancy Reagan in the now aborted CBS mini-series "The Reagans"

I recently watched a television special celebrating CBS's 75th anniversary. This is the same network that most recently raised conservatives' ire with its planned miniseries "The Reagans," (since cancelled) which if described accurately by published reports will be an unfavorable and largely fictitious account of Ronald and Nancy Reagan's public life. The celebratory program brought back memories of some classic television series, reminding me that CBS once had a lot more to offer than shows smearing a 92-year-old man incapacitated by Alzheimer's disease and thus unable to defend himself.

Of course, any prolonged discussion of President Reagan reminds me that the Republican Party once seemed to have a lot more to offer than the thin gruel provided by so many of its leading pols today. By and large, the GOP has not heeded Reagan's advice that it should hoist a banner of bold colors rather than pale pastels in communicating its message and defending core principles.

The Republican National Committee entered the fray over "The Reagans." RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie sent CBS President Leslie Moonves a letter requesting that the miniseries be subjected to historical review or explicitly labeled as fiction. I'm glad the institutional GOP took a strong stand on this, as it is important to correct the record regarding Reagan's presidency. Aspects of his record continue to have relevance to contemporary policy debates over tax cuts, peace through strength and countless other issues. But I can't help but wonder why the RNC can't generate as much press coverage for its efforts to see President George W. Bush's qualified conservative judicial nominees confirmed or the party's platform of lower taxes and less government more generally.

Worse, there are many Republicans actively opposed to central tenets of the GOP platform who are instead advocating agendas that could fairly be described as anti-Reagan. Alabama voters recently rejected a $1.2 billion tax increase their Republican Gov. Robert Riley attempted to inflict upon them. Nevada's Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn has taken his own state's legislature to court to force it to raise taxes. New York City's Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed legislation late last year to increase property taxes by 18.5 percent (his original proposal would have boosted them by 25 percent). Reagan's fiscal conservatism is sometimes idealized – even he signed some misguided "deficit-reduction" tax increases as president – but the policy emphasis of these Republicans is difficult to square with the convictions of our 40th president, a net tax cutter.

If this is what the GOP's farm team looks like, what does this portend for the party's future, as well as that of serious economic conservatism? Are there any Reagan-like standouts who may reclaim the party's legacy of limited taxation and government?

As it happens, there are. Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell is one to watch. During nearly a decade of service in statewide office (he served as state treasurer before twice being elected to his current position) he has been a passionate and eloquent proponent of conservative principles. Most recently, he has led a drive to repeal a sales tax increase signed by Ohio's Republican Gov. Bob Taft via an initiative process, potentially a tax revolt in the tradition of California's Proposition 13. Blackwell's stated goal is to "bring fiscal discipline back to Ohio." He further summarizes his position on his website (http://www.kenblackwell.com): "My philosophy is simple: when our state loses 118,000 jobs in a year we should not be increasing spending several times the rate of inflation and we should not be raising taxes record amounts."

How have GOP leaders responded to Blackwell's call for the party to repudiate its support of this tax hike and live up to its stated principles? Ramesh Ponnuru has reported on National Review Online that instead of supporting him, they are displeased: "The Ohio Republican establishment has made it unmistakably clear over the years that it has little tolerance for Ken Blackwell or his boat-rocking conservatism. The party establishment's hostility to the secretary of state is even higher now that he is campaigning for a referendum to repeal the Republican governor's tax increase."

Despite facing dissent within the GOP ranks, Blackwell is not an anomaly. Other Republicans have remained true to their low-tax, small-government, free-market principles. Another outstanding example is Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who received one of only two A's awarded by the Cato Institute the last time it graded the governors' fiscal policy performance (the other went to Florida's Jeb Bush). Owens has the good fortune to be running the state in the context of a law that limits the growth of state spending to population growth plus inflation. This helped him avoid the unsustainable spending binges that many other states were tempted into going on by the late 1990s boom.

Yet Owens managed to improve upon this situation still further by cutting taxes on income, capital gains, interest and business property to the tune of nearly $1 billion. He applied his line-item veto ruthlessly to cut spending from the state budget. He also has exercised leadership nationally. When other governors, many of them Republicans, were colluding to tax the Internet, he opposed them. If a President Owens could repeat this performance as president – admittedly a tall order in the absence of similar institutional spending restraints at the federal level – he would actually improve upon Reagan's fiscal record.

There are in fact many Republicans at the grassroots who demonstrate this kind of commitment to principle. The party would be immeasurably improved by some of its most committed activists assuming leadership positions and winning public office. It is important to defend Reagan and his policies from malicious misrepresentations. But what TV shows say about him is less important than what he stood for. As he said in his farewell presidential address from the Oval Office in 1989, he was not just a Great Communicator; he was someone who communicated great things.

Let us defend both with vigor with the knowledge that the truth will ultimately prevail.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

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