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Larry Hogan’s Ronald Reagan crush: A reality check, please | COMMENTARY

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, left, has several times mentioned President Ronald Reagan, right, as the kind of president the nation needs. But was he according to his record?
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, left, has several times mentioned President Ronald Reagan, right, as the kind of president the nation needs. But was he according to his record? (Hogan photo by Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

If anyone thought Larry Hogan’s announced choice for president in the 2020 general election — a symbolic write-in for Ronald Reagan — was an aberration (a random choice of deceased Republican presidents after momentarily forgetting about Abraham Lincoln, perhaps), Maryland’s governor doubled down this week. In a livestream virtual appearance at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Mr. Hogan pitched the 40th president as a model of Republican leadership who “wasn’t focused on scoring partisan points.” The obvious implication is, of course, that should Mr. Hogan run for the nation’s office, he’d try to present himself as similar to President Reagan and not like Donald Trump.

Fair enough. He’s got that at least half right. The country doesn’t need another President Donald Trump, and it gave notice of that just two weeks ago when about 5 million more Americans jumped on the Joe Biden train than the Trump golf cart to help set up a decisive Electoral College win on Dec. 14. It’s just taking a while to sink in over at lawyered-up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And, as we’ve noted before, Governor Hogan deserves credit as one of the few high-profile Republicans willing to criticize President Donald Trump and the direction he and his administration has dragged the once-proud Grand Old Party. Mr. Hogan continued that at Monday’s appearance suggesting Mr. Trump was “his own worst enemy” and did not accomplish much but pick fights with Democrats. It wasn’t just Mr. Trump’s tone, the governor pointed out, but the mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the failure to advance any meaningful investment in deteriorating public infrastructure (a cause always dear to gubernatorial pragmatists) and the much-ballyhooed wall on the Mexican border.

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But Ronald Reagan? We would agree that he had communications skills and a far better leadership team than the crew that has cycled through the West Wing these past four years. His self-deprecating humor was disarming. And it’s understandable that Mr. Hogan, who was just 24 years old when Mr. Reagan was first elected in 1980 (and had been a Reagan-supporting alternate at the Republican National Convention four years earlier), remembers him with youthful fondness. But only by overlooking the Reagan record can one muster such adoration, particularly given that Mr. Reagan’s brand of politics was never popular in Maryland, a state that endorsed him only begrudgingly, 52% to 48%, in his 49-state reelection landslide against Walter Mondale.

So what’s not to like? Start with the thousands of AIDS deaths as President Reagan willfully ignored the disease that was then seen only as a threat to the gay community, mentioning it in public for the first time in 1985 (four years after the first recorded U.S. case), when it was a full-blown epidemic and 3,500 Americans had already died from it. Then there was the matter of illegally selling military arms to Iran to finance the Contras in Nicaragua. Fourteen administration officials were indicted and quite a few convicted, but later pardoned or had their convictions vacated on appeal. President Reagan claimed not to have known about the deal, a point disputed by Oliver North. And by the second half of his second term, Mr. Reagan seemed so often confused (he wasn’t diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease until after leaving office), that a lot of Americans were apt to give him a pass.

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But for many Marylanders, the most lasting legacy of Ronald Reagan was his attack on the federal workforce (“government is the problem,” as he announced in his 1981 inaugural address giving fateful credence to the view that hating Washington is somehow patriotic), and his “supply side” tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich (top income tax rates dropped a whopping 20 percentage points even as anti-poverty programs were cut). Combined with his excessive spending on military hardware, Mr. Reagan forced the nation into a pattern of deficit spending that has reached new heights (or lows) under the vainglorious Mr. Trump. The Reagan years might have been the golden age for the Moral Majority and for Cold War hawks, but it wasn’t so great for civil rights, for cities, for low-income families, for the LGBTQ community, for women or for minorities.

Perhaps Republicans will rally behind some rekindling of the Reagan flame. Certainly, some are bound to wake up and recognize what a disaster Mr. Trump has been for the nation and their political brand. But if the only lesson to be learned from the Reagan years is to wrap one’s more distasteful policies in affable clothing, there won’t be much of an upgrade whether Mr. Hogan navigates a path to the White House or not. Civility is nice; thoughtful and inclusive leadership would be better.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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