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Whose Reagan Is It, Anyway?


Ramesh has a smart piece in the latest NR on the right and wrong lessons to draw from Ronald Reagan. “When invoking Reagan,” he writes, “conservatives are prone to two characteristic vices: hero-worship and nostalgia. To hear some conservatives talk, you would forget that Reagan was a human being who made mistakes, including in office. You would certainly forget that movement conservatives were frequently exasperated with Reagan’s administration.”

Indeed, during Reagan’s final years in the White House, many conservatives became disillusioned with his embrace of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his pursuit of arms control. In January 1988, the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy article documenting this angst (titled “The Right Against Reagan”). “The president doesn’t need to discard the people who brought him to the dance,” grumbled North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. Conservative activist Howard Phillips labeled Reagan “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Shortly before the Gipper left office, columnist George Will lamented that he had “accelerated the moral disarmament of the West — actual disarmament will follow — by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.” Will also said that “in the Reagan years there has been what [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan calls a hemorrhaging of reality regarding the fiscal requirements for strength and prosperity. This is a consequence of the narcotic of cheerfulness.”

In recent years, both conservatives and liberals have used the 40th president as a cudgel to bash George W. Bush. Yet they have often misrepresented Reagan’s actual record. (Fred Barnes addressed this in a 2006 Wall Street Journal op-ed.)

The Reagan record includes lowering the top marginal income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent; giving Fed chief Paul Volcker the political support he needed to squeeze the money supply and curb inflation; promoting free markets and limited government; spearheading trade liberalization; making a brief, failed effort to reduce Social Security benefits; putting a slew of judicial conservatives on the federal bench; introducing the pro-life Mexico City Policy on abortion; resisting calls for a nuclear freeze; deploying cruise and Pershing missiles in Western Europe; launching the Strategic Defense Initiative; invading Grenada; aiding anti-Communist rebels in the Third World; bombing Libya; and talking tough on the Soviet Union.

But it also includes raising various taxes; expanding Social Security; endorsing certain protectionist measures, such as tariffs and quotas on Japanese imports; approving an amnesty for illegal immigrants; appointing two of the three Supreme Court justices who would later author the 1992 Casey decision, which reaffirmed Roe v. Wade; withdrawing U.S. military forces from Beirut after 241 American servicemen were killed in a terrorist attack; trading arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair; favoring the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, a desire he expressed at the Reykjavik summit with Gorbachev in 1986; signing a landmark arms-reduction pact (the INF Treaty) with the Soviet boss in 1987; and leaving behind a steep budget deficit.

This list is not meant to diminish Reagan’s achievements, which were historic: He helped to squash inflation, stimulate a robust economic boom, and win the Cold War. In the process, he moved American politics to the right and enlarged the GOP. His iconic stature among conservatives and Republicans is well deserved. Yet as Ramesh points out, “The conservatives who summon Reagan’s ghost for use in today’s arguments usually use him as a stand-in for doctrinal purity.” Reagan was many things, but he did not govern as a doctrinal purist.

“One of the ideas that has confused everyone about Ronald Reagan,” Norman Podhoretz wrote in a 1998 Weekly Standard essay, is “the idea that he was a great ideologue or (if that term seems to carry denigratory connotations) a man of unshakable principle. Certainly this is how Reagan looked as compared with most politicians, very few of whom believe in anything very strongly, or at all. But this is not how he looked as compared with a genuinely principled person, or a truly passionate ideologue.”

Podhoretz insisted that Reagan “was much more of a conventional politician than he was taken to be. It is this that explains why he could so often compromise and sometimes violate even key elements of his putatively rock-bottom convictions; or why he tried mightily to pretend both to his friends and his opponents (and in some instances to himself as well) that he was doing no such thing; or why he was even willing to reverse course altogether for the sake of victory.”

Of all the recent books on Reagan, perhaps the most provocative is Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, published in 2007 by the renowned intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins, who died earlier this year. Diggins criticized many of the Gipper’s policies and questioned the standard conservative narrative of how the Cold War ended. But he nonetheless argued that Reagan (“our Emersonian president”) was “one of the most inspiring political leaders in the second half of the twentieth century” and “also one of the three great liberators in American history,” along with Lincoln and FDR. As Diggins put it, “Abraham Lincoln helped emancipate African Americans from slavery; Franklin D. Roosevelt helped wrest Western Europe from fascism; Ronald Reagan helped liberate Eastern Europe from communism.”

There are problems with the Diggins book, which Steve Hayward has discussed elsewhere. But it is an immensely thoughtful contribution to the debate over Reagan’s political philosophy and his place in American history. Diggins gave Reagan enormous credit for his role in ending the Cold War, as do a growing number of liberals (even if they disagree with conservatives about precisely why Reagan succeeded). “Since the era of Washington and Adams, Reagan was the only president in American history to have resolved a sustained, deadly international confrontation without going to war,” Diggins wrote. “American history has seen nothing like Reagan’s achievement over two centuries of unrelenting military conflict.”

It is this achievement, more than any other, which elevates Reagan into the upper echelon of American presidents. But we should not neglect his biggest economic feat: vanquishing inflation. In his 2008 book, The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath, veteran journalist Robert Samuelson lauds Reagan and Paul Volcker (who served as Federal Reserve chairman from 1979 to 1987) for their “profound” accomplishment. At the start of the 1980s, he notes, “High inflation seemed too entrenched for mere mortals to conquer.” Reagan and Volcker proved otherwise. The latter implemented a painfully tight monetary policy while the former provided crucial political backing. “It is doubtful that, aside from Reagan, any other potential president would have let the Fed proceed unchallenged,” says Samuelson.

“Of all Reagan’s economic achievements,” he writes, conquering inflation “was the most definitive.” It “reinvigorated the economy as nothing else; the expansion lasted from early 1983 until the late summer of 1990. At the time, it was the second longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history.”

In a 2005 survey, an “ideologically balanced” collection of scholars ranked Reagan as the 6th greatest U.S. president — behind only Washington, Lincoln, FDR, Jefferson, and Teddy Roosevelt. Indeed, the Gipper’s historical reputation has improved considerably since he left the White House in 1989. That is a welcome development. But conservatives should be wary of letting Reagan nostalgia lapse into Reagan mythology.