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Ronald Reagan and the Grand Inquisitor

08/08/2011 02:56 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

In Dosteyevsky's masterpiece, The Grand Inquisitor, Christ comes back to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. Quickly apprehended, he stands trial, and is to die a horrible death at the stake the next day. That night, however, he receives a visitor, Torquemada, the chief prosecutor.

This notorious figure offers up a secret. He, and he alone, knows who the captive is, the inspiration for the church they all purport to serve. Despite that knowledge, the grand inquisitor reveals, he plans to say nothing, and let Christ go to a fiery death on the morrow.

His rationale is provocative, and has prompted discussion for over a century. The church, he explains, has come too far to let Jesus back in. Their religious structure has evolved, turned into something way beyond what the deity first established. If that includes the Inquisition, so be it. Christianity now belongs to the popes and the prosecutors, and they have no intention of letting Jesus take it back. So tomorrow he must burn.

There is a strong analogy here to the Republican Party since 1980. That was the start of the Reagan revolution, a major shift to conservative values in American politics. The God-figure, the founding father, of course, was the fortieth president of the United States, and he is revered as such by the modern Republican Party.

But as in the allegory, his followers have taken over the institution, and there would be no place for the founder anymore. The reality is that Ronald Reagan would be drummed out of today's party, and if he dared to run for office, the Tea Party would put up one of their own, a "real conservative," to run against him.

His failures would have been easy to point out. Ronald Reagan, as Republicans love to point out, was a superb politician. But they refuse to recognize the implications of that statement, such as the fact that he was willing to compromise, was happy to engage with Democrats to make the thing work. Several years ago, my university held a symposium on the presidency of Gerald Ford, and one of the speakers was Dan Rosenkowski, who had served with Ford in Congress.

Now Rosty epitomizes everything that Republicans hate, being a post-New Deal Democrat, and a classic product of the Daley machine to boot. Yet, in private conversations, he told grand stories of when he chaired the tax writing House Ways and Means Committee. He regaled us describing the many joyous sessions he spent with President Reagan working out the 1986 tax reform act, meetings highlighted by firm beliefs from all parties, by compromises, and according to the anecdotes, by quite a bit of laughter too. Both parties had their raconteurs at the table.

Or, in a recent article in the New York Times about the 1981 air traffic controllers' strike that Reagan smashed, the author provided a broader perspective about that seminal event and its central figure. Clearly Reagan held strong values about the strike, and broke the union (PATCO) in order to end it. But Joseph McMartin, the author and an historian at Georgetown University, also pointed out that while "he... opposed government strikes, Reagan supported government workers' efforts to unionize and bargain collectively. As governor, he extended such rights in California. As president he was prepared to do the same." Prior to the strike, Reagan had offered PATCO an unprecedented raise, "the first time a president had ever offered so much to a federal employees union." As another indication of Reagan's relationship with unions, PATCO had endorsed him in 1980.

I am not trying to portray Reagan as some kind of son of Harry Bridges; he busted an important union. Rather, simply, that the real story was more complex than those who celebrate Reagan would have it. The point is, RR would have no place in Scott Walker's modern Republican Party, and would be drummed out of the Minnesota caucus as a pro-union waffler.

There's also the reality that this president was willing to raise taxes. And he was far too shrewd a player than to ever sign a binding pledge like Grover Norquist's document and, tie his hands.

Thus, like the Church during the Inquisition, the Grand Old Party has come a long way since 1980, and they have no use for the real Reagan, except as a figurehead whose story they can adapt to support their own positions. It is no longer a party of smart politicians like the Gipper, but of extremists, fanatics. Paul Ryan was asked by David Brooks if he would accept a 90-10 agreement, weighted in his favor. Ryan said no. Reagan would have rejoiced at such a lopsided victory. The difference was that Reagan had some sense of the good of the country tempering his own strong views. His successors are all ideology; any hint of common sense, and America's present health and future well being, must kow tow to those narrow and stunningly rigid beliefs. The Party has moved beyond its founder.