For many Republicans over 35, Ronald Reagan is still the face of the Grand Old Party. His continued relevance for those who lived through the Reagan era is both nostalgic and symbolic. These Reagan Republicans long for a time when their party had dignity and respect, when their party led the fight for freedom, when their party’s leader was as much a symbol of America as the flag he stood beside.
Today, many members of the GOP who remember the Reagan administration find themselves wondering if the meaning of the acronym has changed, if the only things “Grand” about today’s Republican party are its representatives’ opinions of themselves. Today, many of the sworn Reagan Republicans of the 1980s find themselves turning away from their party and looking up, hoping for clarity from beyond, listening for words from the Great Communicator himself. While looking heavenward reveals little, looking backward, into history, reveals Ronald Reagan’s positions on many of today’s biggest issues.
In a list of issues published by The Washington Post last fall, immigration already had a place as a main topic in the 2016 race. The months that have passed since the beginning of the primary season have verified this as true. What few may remember, or even realize, is that immigration was also a main point of discussion during Ronald Reagan’s first bid for the White House.
On April 24, 1980, during the Republican debates, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were asked by a member of the audience, “Do you think the children of illegal aliens should be allowed to attend Texas public schools free or do you think their parents should pay for their education?” Ronald Reagan was very clear about his vision for Mexican immigrants and the importance of Mexico’s relationship with the United States.
“I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had…Rather than making them or talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, then while they’re working here, and earning here, they pay taxes here.”
Ronald Reagan’s position on Hispanic immigration was not only his own. In fact, Reagan shared the position with his fellow conservatives. The official Republican Party Platform of 1980 addressed the immigration issue specifically.
Hispanics are rapidly becoming the largest minority in the country and are one of the major pillars in our cultural, social, and economic life. Diverse in character, proud in heritage, they are greatly enriching the American melting pot…We pledge to pursue policies that will help to make the opportunities of American life a reality for Hispanics.
In 1980, the GOP also addressed a topic that is a source of contention today: the nation’s refugee policy. Only months before Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination, President Jimmy Carter signed the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980, putting refugees on everyone’s mind during that year’s presidential election. The Republican party’s response to the new law was included as part of the party’s platform.
“The traditional hospitality of the American people has been severely tested by recent events, but it remains the strongest in the world. Republicans are proud that our people have opened their arms and hearts to strangers from abroad and we favor an immigration and refugee policy which is consistent with this tradition.”
International relations and the threat of terrorism were also on the minds of Americans during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential bid. In fact, the Republican platform included the very clear sentence “We face a threat from international terrorism.” However, Ronald Reagan did not respond to this threat by shutting borders or building fences. During his two terms as president, Ronald Reagan responded by opening relations with the very country that had been America’s biggest threat for decades.
By the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Cold War was essentially over, the Berlin Wall was down, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and the world was a safer place than it had been since before World War II. Ronald Reagan accomplished this not by building fences, but by tearing down walls. He accomplished this not by isolating the nation, but by building even stronger international alliances.
Ronald Reagan led his party, the Grand Old Party, and his country with honor, thought and compassion. Has the GOP forgotten the value of these characteristics? Has it become the party of disregard, ignorance and hatred? The many Reagan Republicans who believe the answer to both questions to be an unequivocal yes find themselves left with little hope for the futures of both their party and their country. The small amount of hope that remains can be summed up in the words etched onto Ronald Reagan’s tombstone, words that Reagan spoke with the conviction of a man who believes in both himself and mankind.
“I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”