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Haas dean Tom Campbell assesses Reagan's legacy for modern conservatives — and for President Bush

– The death of former U.S. president and California governor Ronald Reagan on Saturday, June 5, has unleashed a flash flood of tributes and encomiums on front pages and TV stations around the world. In an informal poll on the CNN.com website, 78 percent of respondents (more than 94,000 people voted on the short quiz) said that Reagan would be remembered most for his role in ending the Cold War. Although his legacy representing the "triumph of conservatism" was running only a distant second in the poll, at 17 percent, it has been a ubiquitous touchstone for much of the weekend's coverage.

Tom Campbell
'The social conservative wing tends to make Reagan more of an absolutist on the social issues than he really was . I suppose all of us do this: we take our icons and try to make them more in the image of what we wish them to be.'
-Tom Campbell
Dean of the Haas School of Business

The NewsCenter talked to Tom Campbell, the former Republican congressman who is now dean of the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, for further elaboration on Reagan's iconic status for conservatives. Campbell, a former law professor at Stanford University, served five terms as Silicon Valley's representative in Congress.

Reagan is called the father of "modern Republican conservatism," a movement that most date to the defeat of Republican Party presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. How did Reagan become the movement's icon?

Goldwater's defeat moved the Republican party and mainstream political activity away from the word and concept of conservatism. What Ronald Reagan did was to make the discussion of conservatism acceptable again in American politics, first within the Republican party and then within the Democratic party, with the so-called Reagan Democrats. His most important contribution was that conservatism could be a mainstream idea, that the Goldwater phenomenon - the view that conservatism had been rejected so widely by the American public - was not permanent.

How do modern conservatives reconcile Reagan's domestic legacy as California's governor, such as legalizing abortion and radically increasing welfare spending in the state?

They don't. Largely they ignore it.

Because he abandoned these positions when he became president?

Not really. For example, he said he was against Roe v. Wade, but he never once in eight years spoke to the annual meeting in Washington of the Right to Life Coalition. Never once. He would send a message. So I think one must look at his practice, both as governor and as president, as not hard line - certainly not as hard line as some in the religious right would have wished him to be.

That's an important part of why he was able to govern so effectively. He took what might be perceived as the rough edge off of conservatism, but at the same time he certainly did capture the support of the social conservatives, largely by running against President Gerald Ford [in 1976, for the GOP presidential nomination].

What do you mean by the "rough edge"?

The sense that if you're not with us, you're against us. That we cannot reasonably reach an accommodation, which is of course the nature of compromise and the nature of the American political system. For some, the issue of abortion does not admit compromise. But President Reagan never seemed to have that view, no doubt dating from his days as governor. So people ignore it. The social conservative wing tends to make Reagan more of an absolutist on the social issues than he really was.

An analogous situation is Senator Barry Goldwater's support for gay rights. It's probably not widely known, but he made the comment [in the early 1990s] that you don't have to be straight to shoot straight. He thought it was fine to be gay and be in the military: why should we have a rule against gay people serving our country in the military. You'll never hear that from a social conservative. I suppose all of us do this: we take our icons and try to make them more in the image of what we wish them to be.

Reagan's brand of conservatism is most associated with reducing the size of government and lowering taxes. Is that actually what he did in his eight years as governor of California?

The budget of California certainly increased while Reagan was governor. As president, he was known for lowering government, but in fact the size of government once again increased. But when he came into office, he made it quite clear that he wanted to reduce both the size of government and the burden of regulation on the individual. This is a point that folks don't remember as much as they perhaps ought to: Reagan said that we were going to lower the size of government regulatory burden, as well as the absolute size of government. And he did. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, within the Office of Management and Budget, took on a role that it had not had before, and all new regulations were subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. President Jimmy Carter had begun some of those initiatives, and he deserves some of the credit.

But while reducing the government regulatory burden, he was also simultaneously cutting taxes and increasing defense spending.

He did both, yes, and obviously that led to a huge budget deficit. President Reagan seemed to be willing to tolerate the budget deficit, from the point of view that it was worth it if you got something that was lasting. And in his view, I think it would be the end of the Soviet Empire.

An end that also necessitated the increase in defense spending.


You've been publicly critical of the current administration's deficit spending, which clearly has its roots in the Reagan model. Do you think President Bush is viewing the war on terror as justification for the ballooning budget deficit?

Undoubtedly that is President Bush's point of view. But I would emphasize one difference between this and the Reagan model. Our deficit as a percentage of GDP [gross domestic product] is above 5 percent now, which is less than than the 6 percent it was during the worst years of measuring that number, in the 1980s when Reagan was in office, so President Bush has not yet hit the Reagan-era levels. The important difference is that under President Reagan, we were able to finance that deficit by borrowing largely from OPEC [the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] and Japan, because there was no alternative international investment vehicle to the United States dollar. Now there is: the euro. Our creditors — and again in this case they are OPEC, increasingly joined by China rather than Japan — have an alternative place to put their money, which they did not have during Ronald Reagan's years. So in one sense, you can borrow and not have a serious effect on your economy if you have a lender who has no other place to put his or her money. But that's no longer the case.

What elements of Reagan's leadership are important to you personally, as a conservative?

As much as I would say that he deserves credit for making conservatism acceptable again, the main thing is his sense of optimism. That smaller government is acceptable. That individual initiative, rather than waiting for the government to do it, is an appropriate question to ask in approaching any social issue. But putting all of those aside, the fundamental thing was optimism. We are America, we are the greatest country that the world has ever seen, we have a calling to share that greatness with others - by the example that we set, by what we do as well as what we say.