Would Reagan Be Too Liberal for Today’s GOP?



As we get closer to the 2016 elections we will start to see the media repeating a tired old trope about today’s Republican party being too extreme to get elected, the implication being that today’s GOP is so conservative, so right wing, that they are unelectable because they are too far right of most voters. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Ronald Reagan, our modern day conservative hero, would be too liberal for today’s GOP.



But is this true? Are today’s Republicans too extreme?

IMirra1 guess the answer depends on how you’d define “extreme” and that can be tricky. One way would be to measure where GOP members would be placed on the political spectrum, especially compared to the rest of the country. But another way to determine this is to look at how these guys have voted and in what direction they’ve led the country and states. Fortunately, this is more easily quantifiable.

One thing we could look at is government spending; the liberal position would be to increase government spending whereas conservative extremism would entail drastic spending cuts. The graph above shows per capita spending by year:

Mirra2As you can see, per capita spending increased regularly just about every year, regardless of which party held the White House or had control of Congress; the mid nineties saw a levelling of spending when Clinton was President and

Republicans controlled Congress.

Per capita spending can be a little misleading and so it might be more accurate to look at spending as a share of GDP:

As this next chart shows, total government spending as a percent of GDP has also increased steadily despite the fact that today’s “extremist” Republicans control Congress and many of our state legislatures. However, an argument could be made that it’s the kind of spending that could make a party extremist; conservative extremists, for instance, could cut spending on things like welfare and entitlements. But as the following charts show, this argument also falls flat:


Clearly, if Reagan were alive today, he’d be more than a little alarmed at today’s level of welfare and entitlement spending, and not because there is too little of it. The notion that he would be to the left of today’s GOP is preposterous; on just about every issue, including social issues, he would be far to the right of most Republicans at both the state and federal levels. But what would set him apart from members of today’s Congress would be his ability to work with the other side, something that has become anathema in his party.

While the graphs above may show that today’s GOP is not radically conservative, they also show that the country is on an unsustainable path. The lesson for the party is that obstructionism and noncooperation are not helping to solve our problems.


Reagan famously worked with Speaker Tip O’Neill, someone far to the left of the 40th President, and the country was better run as a result. Writing about it years later, Tip’s son, Thomas P. O’Neill, III, would explain: 

“Famously, after 6 p.m. on quite a few work days, they would sit down for drinks at the White House. But it wasn’t the drinks or the conversation that allowed American government to work. Instead, it was a stubborn refusal not to allow fund-raisers, activists, party platforms or ideological chasms to stand between them and actions — tempered and improved by compromise — that kept this country moving.”

It’s time we got moving again.