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Op-Ed: At the Reagan Library for debate, wannabes with little in common with Reagan

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush shows off a Reagan/Bush '84 tee-shirt as he speaks during a Miami field office opening on Sept 12.

Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush shows off a Reagan/Bush ’84 tee-shirt as he speaks during a Miami field office opening on Sept 12.

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

In Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, candidates will no doubt claim that, if elected president, they would conduct themselves as Ronald Reagan did. That’s a sound political move, given that 90% of Republicans and 60% of Americans view Reagan as an outstanding or above-average president. But the GOP presidential contenders have little in common with our 40th president.

First, most of the candidates vehemently oppose a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in this country. By contrast, Reagan supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants early in his presidency and succeeded in getting Congress to pass the bipartisan Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which provided almost 3 million immigrants with a legal path to citizenship.

As Reagan declared in the 1984 presidential debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” Who on stage Wednesday would dare repeat those words?

Second, most of the Republican candidates not only oppose confronting the challenges posed by climate change — whether by undermining international agreements or EPA regulations — but some even deny its existence. Fortunately, Reagan ignored the advice of many of his own climate-denying advisors and launched the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the use of nearly 100 dangerous gases. Today, the Montreal Protocol is widely seen as one of the most successful global environmental treaties in history.

Third, when it comes to deploying American forces around the globe or negotiating with our enemies, the Republican candidates argue for more and more military might. They criticize President Obama for not leaving troops in Iraq, for not intervening in the Syrian civil war, for not putting boots on the ground to fight Islamic State and for negotiating and making a deal with Iran.

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Such critics seem unaware that Reagan withdrew American forces from the civil conflict in Lebanon in 1983 after the deaths of 241 Marines, allowing that civil war to rage on for more than a decade. Or that he negotiated an arms-control agreement with the former Soviet Union, even as it occupied Afghanistan and crushed democracy movements in Eastern Europe.

Fourth, the Republican candidates seem to believe that all Reaganites should want to cut the size of government; that’s an article of faith for modern conservatives. But the real Reagan wasn’t a small-government fanatic. In Reagan’s eight years in office, the federal workforce increased by 324,000 people. He elevated Veterans Affairs to a Cabinet-level department and doubled funding for the Department of Education.

Unlike so many politicians today, Reagan wasn’t all that ideological and was willing to adapt when his economic policies didn’t work. After passing the Economic Recovery Act in 1981, which disproportionally cut taxes on the wealthy and increased the federal deficit, Reagan changed course. During his two terms, he raised taxes 11 times and closed tax loopholes that favored the wealthy. As Reagan pithily explained, “Tax loopholes sometimes make it possible for millionaires to pay nothing while a bus driver pays 10% of his salary, and that’s crazy.”

Finally, the majority of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates oppose closing loopholes in the current firearms background check system, whereas Reagan supported sensible gun law reform.

Two years after leaving office, he even penned an op-ed arguing that the attempt on his life — which permanently disabled his press secretary, James Brady — might never have happened if background checks were required for firearms purchases. Reagan also supported a ban on assault weapons, stating, “An AK-47 machine gun is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.”

Working for Reagan in the Pentagon was one of the great privileges of my life. If the current Republican candidates want to truly embody his legacy, they must let go of the false caricature and acknowledge Reagan’s complexity as well as his moderation. The Reagan Library debate offers a platform to do just that.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He served as assistant secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration.

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