Henry Olsen’s The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism is an immensely valuable book, not least because its insights are relevant to the current debate over health care policy.
The primary argument of the book is that Reagan was not the anti-government crusader that he is often remembered to be, but sought to protect Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal while dismantle Lyndon Johnson’ Great Society.
Olsen makes a strong argument that Reagan believed government should support the needy, and that his main objection to the liberal welfare state was that it went much further than that, seizing power to serve the utopian visions of unelected bureaucrats, limiting Americans’ potential for success.
Olsen does not answer — nor, really, did Reagan — the question of whether the very existence of those government departments and programs leads to those statist excesses. Olsen’s diagnosis of the causes of present-day Republican divisions is also inaccurate. He seems to blame the Tea Party movement for punishing deviations from conservative orthodoxy, though he does seem to acknowledge that it was the party establishment that launched the first shots after 2012, believing the party base had pushed Gov. Mitt Romney too far to the right on immigration.
He makes a comment, in passing, accusing Donald Trump of “not-so-veiled racialism and white nationalism,” a claim he does not prove (and does not repeat). Yet Olsen’s insights help explain why Trump attracted the same working-class voters that lifted Reagan to victory.
On Obamacare, Olsen says Reagan would have backed repeal:
Reagan would definitely have wanted to repeal Obamacare. Its rules and regulations put the government in the driver’s seat in determining what care should be delivered, to whom, and at what price. This is exactly the sort of government-directed society that Reagan believed was opposed to American principles.
However, he adds, Reagan also would have wanted to preserve parts of Obamacare:
It’s less clear what he would have wanted to replace it with. I think, however, it is pretty clear he would have wanted to ensure that people would not lose coverage that they had received as a result of Obamacare’s exchanges and the Medicaid expansion. His consistent belief that it was OK for government to pay for needed medical care for those who could not afford it makes that plain. The details as to who should be covered, how much the government should pay, and what level of care they would be guaranteed would be up for discussion, but I can’t imagine that Reagan would be more concerned about money than about life.
Above all, Olsen argues, Reagan would have opposed an approach that placed conservative ideological goals ahead of what was best for ordinary people — for the “truckers and cashiers” who lay at the heart of his political vision.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.