For nearly a decade starting in the mid-1960s, Ronald Reagan was California governor and Assemblyman John Burton was his liberal nemesis in Sacramento. The two battled over school funding, mental healthcare and other social welfare programs.
Burton continued his opposition during the two years in Congress he overlapped with President Reagan, before eventually returning to Sacramento for another long stint in the Legislature.
Today, Reagan is a Republican saint. Burton serves in the decidedly more secular role of chairman of the California Democratic Party.
He is, to understate matters, no great fan of Reagan. “Affable,” Burton said, but his “policies weren’t good.”
All of which makes the unrequited lefty an unlikely fan of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, an effort to commemorate the nation’s 40th president by, among other tributes, having a statue, park, or roadway named after Reagan in all 3,140 counties across the country.
Tongue planted squarely in cheek, Burton dispatched a letter this week to the founder of the legacy project, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, extolling his efforts. Burton wrote of Reagan, in part, “I fondly remember his signing the largest tax increase in the more than hundred-year history of our state…. I also fondly remember Governor Reagan signing the bill that liberalized abortion, the Therapeutic Abortion Act.”
“I think it’s wonderful that you’re willing to honor somebody who has such a liberal progressive record,” Burton concluded.
(For those familiar with the Burton patois, the notable lack of four-letter words might call into question the authenticity of the letter, but the chairman confirmed its authorship in an interview Tuesday.)
There has long been a gap between the Reagan reverie and the Reagan reality. In addition to the tax hike and abortion bill he signed as governor, President Reagan approved several federal tax increases to deal with a soaring budget deficit, repeatedly boosted the nation's debt limit, signed into law a bill granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and oversaw an increase in both the size and spending of the federal government.
There is perhaps no better authority on matters Reagan-related than Stuart Spencer, the strategist who was instrumental to his election as both governor and president. Spencer questions how Reagan would fit in today’s tea-party-infused GOP.
"People that pragmatic now are what they call RINOs," Spencer said on the eve of a 2011 Republican debate at Simi Valley’s Reagan presidential library, using the epithet "Republican in Name Only,” which is heaved at those found lacking in ideological purity.
Norquist, speaking from Washington, dismissed Spencer's judgment as "the dumbest thing I've heard in a long time." Budget-cutting, entitlement reform and other facets of today's Republican agenda were all a part of Reagan's agenda, Norquist said. "Everything we're doing now, he called for."
As for Burton, Norquist accused him of a stunning and egregious lack of grace. There are thousands of public tributes around the country to Democratic President John F. Kennedy and "you don't see that kind of snotty reaction" from Republicans, Norquist said.
"Burton was wrong on absolutely everything on matters of economics and foreign policy," Norquist said, "and Reagan was right."
The Democratic chairman, of course, disagrees. Nearly 50 years later, Burton and Reagan are still at odds.