Ronald Reagan: The 'Original Tea Party Candidate'

President Ronald Reagan campaigns for his economic policies in 1987 before a sign that reads "Truth in Spending, Americans Deserve It." i i

President Ronald Reagan campaigns for his economic policies in 1987 before a sign that reads "Truth in Spending, Americans Deserve It." Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images
President Ronald Reagan campaigns for his economic policies in 1987 before a sign that reads "Truth in Spending, Americans Deserve It."

President Ronald Reagan campaigns for his economic policies in 1987 before a sign that reads "Truth in Spending, Americans Deserve It."

Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images

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."

Ronald Reagan, From Illinois To D.C.

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    Ronald Reagan in Dixon, Ill., in the 1920s. Born in Tampico, Ill. in 1911, Reagan went on to serve two terms as governor of California and two terms as president of the United States.
    Photos courtesy of The Reagan Library
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    After graduating from Eureka College, where he studied economics and sociology, Reagan began acting in Hollywood. Here he is seen flying a P-40 airplane in a still from the 1943 Army Air Force training film, "Identification of a Japanese Zero." He would go on to appear in 53 films.
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    Continuing his career in show business, Reagan was the only host of the General Electric Theater, an American anthology series broadcasted on CBS in the 1950s and '60s.
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    Ronald Reagan shakes hands with supporters at a 1980 campaign stop in Indiana. Reagan's presidential campaign surged ahead after his October debate with Democrat opponent Jimmy Carter, when he closed his argument with the question: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
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    Reagan gives his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, July 17, 1980.
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    The Reagans wave from the limousine during their first inaugural parade in 1981.
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    Chaos reigns outside the Washington Hilton Hotel after Reagan was shot during an assassination attempt only 69 days after taking office in 1981.
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    President Reagan, seen in the Oval Office, drafts a speech to the nation about the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the aftermath of the Marines killed in Lebanon, October 1983.
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    Reagan is sworn in for a second term in the rotunda at the U.S. Capitol in 1985. It was too cold to hold the ceremony outdoors.
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    Reagan's meetings with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately lead to a treaty eliminating intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Pictured here is his first meeting with Gorbachev in 1985.
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    Reagan meets in the Oval Office with the Tower Commission tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, February 1987. Betraying a promise to never deal arms in exchange for hostages, Reagan's administration illegally funded Nicaraguan rebels fighting that country's leftist government without Congress' knowledge.
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    Reagan walks along the White House colonnade and waves goodbye on his last day in office, Jan. 20, 1989. He left office with an approval rating of more than 60 percent.

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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."

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