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How similar are Trump and Reagan?

Donald Trump often invoked Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail this year, and did so again as President-elect last week at a North Carolina rally as he described his plans for the military. But just how similar are the two men? As NewsHour Weekend Correspondent Jeff Greenfield explains, their differences are a testimony to how much our political landscape has changed over the past 35 years.

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  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    1980: A landslide by any measure. Ronald Reagan defeats President Jimmy Carter by 10 percentage points in the popular vote, eight-and-a-half million votes.He wins 44 states, 489 electoral votes. And sweeps a Republican Senate into power on his coattails.

  • 2016:

    Despite running 2.7 million popular votes behind Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump wins the White House by carrying 30 states, 306 electoral votes. A shift of only 40-thousand votes from Trump to Clinton in three of the closest states — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — one thirtieth of one percent of the national total — would have made Clinton the winner.

    Yet it may be Trump, rather than Reagan, who presides over greater public policy change.

    Reagan came to the Presidency with the clear goal of shrinking the power of Washington, as he said in his first inaugural address:

  • RONALD REAGAN:

    "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Yet by the end of his two terms, not a single social program of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had been eliminated or substantially reduced.

    Not Medicare, not Medicaid, not Head Start, not consumer protections, not the Civil Rights Act. In fact, under Reagan, the size of the federal civilian workforce grew. The federal budget deficit set peacetime records, and the national debt reached an all-time high.

    Why? One huge reason: divided government. The House of Representatives was in Democratic hands all eight years of his presidency; the Senate for the last two. Reagan had to negotiate with the opposition.

    And Reagan dealt with a very different Republican Party than today's. At least a-third of Senate Republicans back then were squarely in the moderate and even liberal camp — an all but extinct breed today. That was a check on Reagan's Cabinet and Court appointments.

    By contrast, Trump will have a Congress under total Republican control; and a party more consistently conservative than back in the 1980s.

    That means, for instance, that President Obama's key legislative victory —the Affordable Care Act—is likely to be repealed and replaced.

    But just as important, a Senate rule change Democrats put into place when they held the majority three years ago abolishing the filibuster for most judicial and Presidential nomination — means now that they're in the minority, Democrats have a lot less power to block Trump's choices.

    And some of those choices advocate sweeping changes in federal policy.

    His choice for Attorney General, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, has long opposed the Justice Department's attempts to block state laws that impose voter ID requirements.

    His proposed Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is a skeptic of man-made climate change and an ally of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries.

    His proposed Education Secretary, Michigan activist Betsy Devos, is a strong supporter of charter schools and deeply critical of teachers' unions.

    And his choice for Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Doctor Ben Carson, has called public housing desegregation rules failed "mandated social engineering schemes" and likened them to communism.

    Trump's pick for Labor Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is a foe of the Obama Administration's expansion of eligibility for overtime pay and of raising the minimum wage.

    What this means is that once his cabinet is in place, it could represent as clear a reversal of federal policies as any in recent memory.

    An even more dramatic arena for change is the Supreme Court. In Reagan's time, Justices would occasionally diverge from the policies of the President who appointed them. For instance, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy voted to uphold Roe v. Wade—the decision that had made abortion a constitutional right—which Reagan opposed.

    But for the last quarter century, almost every Supreme Court nominee of every President has voted consistently along political lines. Chief Justice John Roberts' upholding Obamacare is one big exception.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    "They will interpret the Constitution the way the founders wanted it interpreted and I believe that's very important."

  • JEFF GREENFIELD:

    Trump promised to put conservatives on the high court and he'll start with the unfilled vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. Should Justice Kennedy or either of the Court's oldest liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer, retire Trump could change the Court for a generation by creating a 6-3 conservative majority for the first time since the 1930's.

    To be sure, it's not clear sailing for Trump's agenda. A dozen returning Republican Senators roughly 1 in 4) rejected or never endorsed Trump's Presidential bid, and they may push back on some of his nominees and proposals.

    Still, it's a striking measure of what has changed that a Republican who won the two biggest landslides in his party's history could change far less than his rhetoric promised, while a Republican who edged into office by so narrow a margin has the potential to change much more.

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