The Republican Party has drifted so far to the right and become so partisan in recent years that President Ronald Reagan wouldn't even want to be a part of it, former Nebraska GOP senator Chuck Hagel told The Cable.
"Reagan would be stunned by the party today," Hagel said in a long interview in his office at Georgetown University, where he now teaches. He also serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Reagan wanted to do away with nuclear weapons, raised taxes, made deals with congressional Democrats, sought compromises and consensus to fix problems, and surrounded himself with moderates as well as Republican hard-liners, Hagel noted. None of that is characterized by the current GOP leadership, he said. In his eyes, the rise of the Tea Party and the influx of new GOP lawmakers in Congress have driven the party away from common sense and consensus-based solutions.
"Reagan wouldn't identify with this party. There's a streak of intolerance in the Republican Party today that scares people. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in a society because it always leads to a tragic ending," he said. "Ronald Reagan was never driven by ideology. He was a conservative but he was a practical conservative. He wanted limited government but he used government and he used it many times. And he would work with the other party."
The situation today is similar to where the GOP found itself in the early 1950s, when there was a battle for the direction of the party over the party's identity, Hagel said. Dwight Eisenhower and his moderate allies won that fight, diminishing the influence of extremists like Joe McCarthy, Hagel said.
But today, the extremists are winning.
"Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the right, I would say the extreme right, more than ever before," said Hagel. "You've got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that if you look at what happened during the first 8 years of the century, it was under Republican direction."
George W. Bush started two wars while cutting taxes, added an unfunded prescription drug mandate, and ran up the deficit, but today's GOP leaders can't reconcile that history with their agenda today, Hagel noted.
"The Republican Party is dealing with this schizophrenia. It was the Republican leadership that got us into this mess," he said. "If Nixon or Eisenhower were alive today, they would be run out of the party."
Hagel decried the departure of the World War II generation, including figures like Ted Stevens, Bob Dole, and now Richard Lugar, and along with them the leadership provided by GOP senators who put national interests above party politics.
"They made it work because their obligation and responsibility was to a higher cause than their party. They were all partisan but they all knew their higher responsibility was to move this country forward and resolve issues through compromise and consensus. We've lost that glue in the Congress."
When moderate Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) resigned his leadership post in the Senate last year, that was a clear indication that the party had no room left for internal dissent, according to Hagel.
"How many times has that happened, to walk away from a leadership position so he would have more flexibility to find consensus and solve real-life issues," Hagel said. "There has been a litmus test, purity factor that has been applied over the years, I saw it in the Senate myself."
Hagel said that the GOP's swing to the extreme right is a response to overall unhappiness throughout the country with the state of the economy, Congress, and politics in general. He predicted that after the voters see that far-right politics don't work, the pendulum will swing back toward moderation.
"We have to go through this. There aren't any shortcuts. The Tea Party of the coffee party or the donut party or something was going to come out of this, it was very predictable," he said. "We're going to have to play that out."
Meanwhile, the dynamic of a GOP controlled by the extreme right is having an effect on the likely GOP nominee, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
"Whether it's Mitt Romney or anybody seeking office, you are captive to the positions of the party to some extent," Hagel said. "What latitude Romney has to shape the party as we go into the election is somewhat limited because of the primary he's had to run."
How Romney positions himself in the run up to the election and whether that results in a win or a loss will have a huge effect on the direction of the Republican Party for years to come, he said. He also urged Romney to provide more details on his plans to fix the country's problems.
"You can criticize the president all you want, but what the American people are going to be listening very carefully to is: How are you going to fix them? How will you do things different and better from the incumbent president? That's where the election will be won or lost."
In the end, both parties are to blame for Americans' disaffection with politics and government and more Americans are turning away from Democrats and Republicans as a result, Hagel said.
"It's evolved into a paralysis," he said. "I think it's the most serious governance crisis we've seen in this country in a long time. You may not like government, but it has to work."
JUNKO KIMURA/AFP/Getty Images
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.