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Opinion

May 11, 2013

Shribman: A GOP held hostage by Reagan

Is the specter haunting today’s Republicans ... Ronald Reagan?

The 40th president has been dead for nine years. He hasn’t been president for a quarter-century. The world he inhabited — with the Soviets ruling the Kremlin, interest rates hovering in double digits, Michael Jackson performing on glittery stages and Ivan Boesky symbolizing Wall Street — is gone, every shred of it, and now is studied in college history courses.

Yet Reagan still is a palpable presence in the party he revived three decades ago. Republicans still push against taxes and portray Washington as a feudal overlord. Almost all of them oppose same-sex marriage and many of them oppose an overhaul of American immigration law, with the party’s last nominee, former Gov. Mitt Romney, using antiquated Reaganite language — he all but said “welfare queens” — to describe half the country.

Many historians view Reagan and his onetime hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the signature politicians — one from the right, one from the left — of the 20th century. In separate eras and in separate ways they molded Americans’ views of community, government responsibility and public leadership for far longer than their tenure in the White House. Each addressed Americans’ fears and preoccupations, altering the character of Washington and Americans’ vision of themselves and their place in the world.

Still, it has gone all but unnoticed that Reagan persisted far longer as a presence in the Republican Party than Roosevelt, who won election to the White House twice as many times, did in the Democratic Party. Reagan’s specific notions and nostrums still govern Republicans. Though much of the general philosophy of the New Deal endures, even embraced (as some of Reagan’s ideas are) by his rivals, a recondite defense of Social Security is about the only actual element of the FDR program that remains part of his party’s creed.

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