The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 puts an end to Reagan legacy

SACRAMENTO – After casting my first vote for Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, I was shell-shocked after Ronald Reagan was swept into office. Then something odd happened. I was buoyed by Reagan’s optimism, became convinced about the evils of communism and came to realize the free-market economy – rather than expanded federal power – offers the best hope for the downtrodden (and everyone). The Gipper convinced me.

He had some help from former Buffalo Bills quarterback and then-U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who was an architect of Reagan’s tax cuts. I was influenced by one of his articles making the humanitarian case for a market agenda. “Kemp symbolizes for many the hope for a more decent and humane conservatism – a conservatism that leaves nobody out and nobody behind,” wrote David Frum in a 2015 tribute to him.

It’s no surprise that Frum, former House Speaker Paul Ryan and those of us who admire the late congressman recoil at the GOP’s recent dark and conspiratorial turn. I can’t find that old Kemp article, but it was brimming with hope for the future, filled with realistic policy prescriptions to lift people out of poverty and exuded authenticity and graciousness.

It’s such a stark contrast to what we hear today – unhinged attacks on political opponents, visions of American carnage, threats of retribution, talk of immigrants as invaders and other cruel and divisive claptrap. America faced even more intractable problems then, so it’s hard to understand where this new outlook comes from.

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I read Kemp in Policy Review, then the flagship publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which was a leading light in the Reagan revolution. These days, the foundation generally is an advocate for the latest GOP approach – even though many of the current GOP’s populist ideas stand in stark contrast to the economic and foreign-affairs positions advocated by Republicans in the 1980s.

The group has spearheaded (along with some former Trump appointees) a new document, Project 2025, that provides a transition policy roadmap should Trump regain the White House. Much of it is disturbing, but it’s refreshing to see actual policy prescriptions spelled out. Since 2016, the party’s basic platform is to follow whatever Trump says – and no serious person would argue Trump is any kind of policy wonk.

Liberals are freaking out. U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., calls Project 2025 an “unprecedented embrace of extremism, fascism, and religious nationalism, orchestrated by the radical right and its dark money backers.” In reality, its 900-plus pages offer a mix of traditional policy platforms with MAGA-oriented ideas. It often conforms to the new conservative approach of wielding government on behalf of conservative causes, as opposed to Reagan’s laudable goal of limiting government power.

For instance, the document explains, “The great challenge confronting a conservative president is the existential need for aggressive use of the vast powers of the executive branch to return power – including power currently held by the executive branch – to the American people. Success in meeting that challenge will require … boldness to bend or break the bureaucracy to the presidential will and self-denial to use the bureaucratic machine to send power away from Washington and back to America’s families, faith communities, local governments and states.”

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Of course, the federal bureaucracy is unwieldy and often promotes bureaucratically approved inanities at odds with the views of the average American. But implementing what critics call “unitary executive theory” – i.e., putting all aspects of the federal government under the control of the president – is a prescription for authoritarianism and abuse.

The document calls for deploying the feds against tech companies: “TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms are specifically designed to create the digital dependencies that fuel mental illness and anxiety, to fray children’s bonds with their parents and siblings. Federal policy cannot allow this industrial-scale child abuse to continue.”

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There’s more: “Pornography should be outlawed. The people who produce and distribute it should be imprisoned. Educators and public librarians who purvey it should be classed as registered sex offenders” and “firms that facilitate its spread should be shuttered.” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart couldn’t define pornography but said, “I know it when I see it.” Likewise, I can’t define exactly what makes a proposal unconstitutional, but I know one when I see it.

The document gives nods to liberty and rehashes some noble but failed Reagan-era ideas, such as dismantling the U.S. Department of Education. But it seems more concerned about stopping federal agencies that promote “woke-ness” than improving education for everyone. There’s little inspiration in it. Well, no one is left guessing about what a next Trump term might look like.

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Times change, but promoting liberty by reducing the government power – rather than harnessing it on behalf of “conservative” or populist nostrums – remains the right way to revive the the nation. I’m glad Reagan and Kemp aren’t here to see what’s happened to their legacies.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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