Meet Reagan Democrat Joe Biden
During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan bestrode the political landscape like a colossus. After two Reagan landslides, the Democratic Party was on its heels, having lost one-in-four of their supporters to the popular Republican. Democrats took pains to study the so-called “Reagan Democrats” and learn what made them tick. Leading the charge was the Democratic Leadership Council, which advocated that the party abandon its Big Government, New Deal-like approach to problems and support a strong national defense and middle-class tax cuts. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Biden were among its prominent members who liked to call themselves “New Democrats.”
Reagan Democrats liked their man’s support for a strong national defense, opposition to Russian expansionism and tax cuts. In 1980, the Republican platform condemned the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and warned that it “promises to be only the forerunner of much more serious threats to the West.”
Today, a new kind of Cold War is taking place in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to redraw the map of Europe. Speaking before Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that U.S. assistance to Ukraine “is not charity; it’s an investment in the global security and democracy.”
President Biden agrees, saying, “If Moscow is allowed to get away with this, what will stop it from invading another country?” One can easily imagine Ronald Reagan speaking those same words.
Reagan was also a strong supporter of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which was included in The Tax Reform Act of 1986. The EITC significantly reduced taxes on low-income families, and Reagan described it as “the best antipoverty bill, the best pro-family measure, and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States.”
Among those who voted for the measure was a Delaware Democrat named Joe Biden. In 2021, Biden’s American Rescue Plan expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit to include 17 million workers without dependent children. Biden’s rescue plan also took Reagan’s idea of using the tax code to combat poverty by significantly raising the Child Care Tax Credit. It established a $3,000 deduction for every child age six to 17, and a $3,600 credit for every infant under six years old. The result was to reduce child poverty to record lows. Although the child care tax credits were subsequently reduced to their pre-2021 levels, the Biden administration remains committed to their restoration. But when these proposals were before the last Congress, every Republican voted no.
Another common denominator between Reagan and Biden is their willingness to extend a welcoming hand to new immigrants. In his final address as president, Reagan said, “Thanks to each wave of new arrivals in this land of opportunity, we’re a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier.” Reagan opposed the idea of constructing walls or fences along the southern border, telling Walter Mondale in a 1984 presidential debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” In 2020, candidate Biden echoed Reagan, saying, “Immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, our core values, and our aspirations for the future.”
Donald Trump took a very different approach, committing millions of dollars to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, arguing that the U.S. had become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”
Trump singled out Mexico, saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”
Today, Trump acolyte Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweets, “It’s time to protect OUR border, not Ukraine’s,” while former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) quotes the sentiments of her fellow Californian Ronald Reagan when it comes to welcoming immigrants.
For decades whenever a controversial issue arose, Republicans asked themselves, “What would Reagan do?” Today, that question is no longer relevant. For example, in 1980, Republicans warned that “a major upgrading of our military forces, a strengthening of our commitments to our allies, and a resolve that our national interests be vigorously protected” were needed to ensure “peace through strength.”
Today’s Trump-dominated Republican Party questions each of these premises. Calls for deep spending cuts – including aid to Ukraine and reductions in the defense budget – are the opposite of what Reagan and the Reagan Democrats once supported. Likewise, when it comes to ensuring that the 14th Amendment’s promise that the “validity of the public debt of the United States. . .shall not be questioned,” Republicans ignore that Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times without controversy. Today, intransigent Republicans are willing to risk the financial stability of the United States by refusing to pay debts already incurred.
Political parties are not static institutions. In 1987, Donald Trump spent $100,000 on full-page advertisements in The New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe criticizing Ronald Reagan’s defense policies. In an open letter addressed to the American people, Trump argued that the U.S. “should stop paying to defend countries that can afford to defend themselves.”
Today, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) believes that neither the Pentagon nor Ukraine should be given a “blank check.” The political scientist Kenneth Janda reminds us in his new book, “The Republican Evolution,” that a party that once stood for freedom and order now “espouses incompatible principles and undemocratic politics.” It is no longer Ronald Reagan’s party but Donald Trump’s. And Trump’s innumerable contradictions and inconsistencies do not allow for coherence. Today, the question “What would Reagan do?’ is being answered by a Reagan Democrat named Joe Biden.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”