Ronald Reagan: The 'Original Tea Party Candidate'

February 5, 2011

Don Gonyea

Spend any time at Tea Party meetings and one thing you learn pretty quickly is that Tea Party activists are far quicker to criticize than praise politicians. But they do make exceptions, and President Ronald Reagan makes that list.

In the '70s and '80s, Reagan, who would have marked his 100th birthday Sunday, helped inspire a conservative era in American politics. Today, it's the Tea Party movement that's become a dynamic force on the right.

"Ronald Reagan was, in many ways, the original Tea Party candidate," says Craig Shirley, author of the book Reagan's Revolution. The book chronicles Reagan's run for president in 1976, taking on the political establishment and incumbent President Gerald Ford.

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem — government is the problem," Reagan famously said in his inaugural address.

"He took on the Washington buddy system," Shirley says. "He attacked big government, big labor, but he also attacked big business."

Running On Reagan's Inspiration

Tea Party activist Dee Armstrong is a member of the Blue Ridge Patriots, a Tea Party in Berkeley County, W.Va. She sees Reagan as one of her own.

"I think he would embrace us, not on our principles only. I think he would embrace us on our striving for freedom and constitutionality," she says. "There wouldn't be just a conservative approach; he would be recognizing us, as speaking for the people."

Washington, D.C.-based FreedomWorks is one of the big national groups involved in Tea Party activity. FreedomWorks Vice President Max Pappas says his group isn't doing anything special to mark Reagan's 100th.

"I mean, we didn't even do anything for Friedrich Hayek's birthday," he adds, referencing the Austrian economist and philosopher whose 20th century work on capitalism is revered by many Tea Party activists.

The Tea Party movement is about ideas more than any individual, Pappas says, even one as iconic in conservative circles as Reagan.

Not Even Reagan Was Ideal

"Reagan certainly did more than most recent presidents for economic freedom, but it certainly wasn't a perfect record," he says.

For Tea Party activists, those imperfections include Reagan's record on taxes. He pushed through big tax cuts. But he also agreed to a series of tax increases that made the reductions far smaller than originally planned.

"That was not a Tea Party moment," Pappas says, "but he did what he had to do."

Deficits also ballooned under Reagan as he increased defense spending, but Armstrong says she doesn't blame him for that. Government spending today is far more out of control, she says.

"I just think we're spending money, in way too many places that the federal government has no business in," she says. "And I think Ronald Reagan would definitely recognize that today."

But that doesn't mean Reagan would get a break from the Tea Party today, Pappas warns. If Reagan were in office now, he says, the Tea Party would keep the pressure on him — just like any other politician.

"We'd hold his feet to the fire." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.