Eleventh Commandment: The Gipper Wouldn’t Feed Today’s GOP ‘Squirrels’

Houston Chronicle

Just over 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan came to Houston to speak at a Republican Party fundraiser called “A Salute to the Republic”. Halfway between the California governor’s mansion and the White House, Citizen Reagan told the enthusiastic crowd, “Let us do away with the saliva tests we administer to each other to determine our political purity.” Reagan’s words ring just as strongly today as in 1977, but I wonder how many of those who claim to love him the most are listening. At both the national and local levels, there are those who declare that certain Republican elected officials are insufficiently conservative and must be purged. Sen. John McCain is getting the worst of these blasts right now, with some self-appointed tribunes of Reagan’s legacy saying they might even prefer Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – scarcely followers of the Gipper — to McCain. Let us leave aside the question whether it’s in these folks’ economic and media interest to have a liberal Democrat in the White House to rail against and raise money against. The best times for many a talk show host, author-lecturer, and advocacy group were when Bill Clinton was president, and such happy days may come again. Rather, let us simply ask whether Ronald Reagan would be cheering on the attackers of Sen. McCain if he were alive today. Of course he wouldn’t — not just because he was the author of the so-called Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”) but because he was an intense admirer of John McCain, whom he personally welcomed home from Hanoi in 1973. In the next decade, McCain was elected to the US House and Senate from Arizona, and he has been the true heir of both Barry Goldwater and of Ronald Reagan ever since. That, however, does not equal passing the saliva test for McCain’s critics. To them the senator’s occasional departures from dogma mean he is not a Reaganite and never will be. But you know what? Ronald Reagan would fail their test, too. This was because he was that most terrible, awful thing: A pragmatist. As president, Reagan would make concessions on his program to get the majority of what he wanted passed. For example, when the historic tax-cut bill was moving through the US House (then controlled by Democrats) in 1981, Reagan wanted to reduce the rate on unearned income from 70% to 50% in order to stimulate investment. But he had to agree to cut personal taxes by 25% instead of 30%. Today, the people who monitor lawmakers’ voting records would shriek that such a compromise constituted a betrayal of Ronald Reagan’s principles and was ample reason to root out any Republican who supported it. But in his diary that night, Reagan wrote: “H—l, it’s more than I thought we could get. I’m delighted to get the seventy down to fifty.” (Reagan, not this newspaper, censored his expletive.) When Reagan did things like this, many conservative leaders had a ready explanation. In newspaper columns and on-camera commentary, they alleged that the President was being beguiled and manipulated by “moderates”, White House chief of staff Jim Baker most evilly of all. The secretary of the Interior, Jim Watt, memorably shouted at a rally in 1982, with Baker sitting just a few feet away, “Let Reagan be Reagan!” Another critic was Houston conservative leader Clymer Wright, who said that Baker was undermining and sabotaging Reagan’s program. The president promptly wrote his old supporter: “Yes, there is undermining of my efforts going on, and, yes, there is sabotage of all I’m trying to accomplish. But it’s being done by the people who write these articles and columns, not by any White House staff member and certainly not Jim Baker…. I’m in charge, and my people are helping to carry out the policies I set. No, we don’t get everything we want and, yes, we have to compromise to get 75 percent or 80 percent of our programs.” Back when I was serving as one of President Reagan’s appointees, it always struck me as ironic how fellow conservatives who embraced the fiction of Reagan-as-captive were in effect saying the same thing the liberals were, namely that the president was a witless actor reciting lines that others had written for him. This hardly complimented the man for whom they professed adoration. What John McCain is experiencing nationally, State Rep. Corbin Van Arsdale (R-Tomball) is experiencing locally. One of the most effective young conservative leaders of the Texas House of Representatives, Van Arsdale is targeted for defeat in next month’s GOP primary on account of ideological impurity. This ridiculous charge is based on a few stray committee and floor votes that are no true measure of political philosophy. These critics call Van Arsdale a RINO, a “Republican in name only”. There’s another animal name for those who engage in this kind of politics: SQUIRREL, a “Snarky Quibbler who Undermines and Ignores Ronald Reagan’s Enduring Legacy”. Squirrels seldom win public office, where they have to spend every day among satanic compromisers and where they manage only to give speeches. They persuade themselves and not a few constituents that the fact they are ineffectual is proof that they alone are ideologically pure. Squirrels will only be happy when the Republican Party of Texas can once again convene in a phone booth, close enough to check each other for the least sign of deviationism. As a state representative from Houston, I was once set upon by a pack of squirrels for the same trumped-up sins as John McCain and Corbin Van Arsdale today. I easily threw back the assault, and so will they. But such a self-destructive urge is not healthy for any political party. If Ronald Reagan were still with us, I can picture him writing in his diary, “Nuts to the squirrels!” Though maybe he would have written “n—s” instead.

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