Politics & Policy

Getting Reagan Right

Charles Krauthammer misses the crucial distinctions.

I often agree with Charles Krauthammer, but I think this time he is off the mark. What people loved about Ronald Reagan was that he was a statesman, not just another politician. Reagan didn’t grant three million illegal aliens amnesty because he was pandering to the Hispanic community, or believed in a pathway to citizenship. He did it because he believed that the other part of the deal, securing the border, would follow. So, he reluctantly accepted what he considered to be a one-time amnesty. Ed Meese has explained this repeatedly. Unfortunately, the security part of the deal faltered. No excuses, but let’s get the facts right.

Others have suggested that Reagan flip-flopped on abortion; this is also false. He advocated a health exception (for the life of the mother) which, as he explained later, was exploited to include virtually anything. But he wasn’t pro-abortion. Giuliani and Romney were. And they are struggling with it today. Reagan learned that the exception became the rule, and he would oppose abortion of any kind from then on. To compare this with those who emphatically defended abortion on demand (and federal funding no less, in Giuliani’s case) is nonsense.

Moreover, Reagan did all he could as president to follow through on his pro-life position. He instituted his Mexico City policy, preventing the use of federal funds for abortions abroad. His administration was directed to deny funds, wherever it could, for abortions. He was also part of an effort, led by Jesse Helms in the Senate, to amend the Constitution. There weren’t enough votes, but they tried.

Ignoring all of this, Krauthammer says Reagan gave us Justices O’Connor and Kennedy, which, of course, is true. But he had no idea where they stood on abortion, or how they would rule. Rightly or wrongly, he set no issue-specific litmus test for his judges. But we know he didn’t appoint them because he thought they would endorse abortion from the bench. On the contrary — they left the impression with those who vetted them that they were “originalists” and, as it turned out, they mislead everyone.

As for Reagan taking naps, he did. If Thompson does the same, that is quite a smart move. I take them now and then myself and recommend them to others. What counts is what you do when you’re awake.

Reagan helped build and lead the modern conservative movement. That can’t be said of any of the current Republican candidates. He helped give it substance and voice. He fought the Left in Hollywood. He was an outspoken Barry Goldwater supporter when Goldwater was fairly unpopular with the general public. He took on Gerald Ford, challenging him from the Right. Indeed, his candidacies in 1968, 1976, and 1980 were all ideologically based. And he obviously won in 1980 as the most conservative candidate in modern history. And both as a candidate and president, Reagan constantly spoke of conservative principles, as he had since the mid-to-late 1950s. He was not a recent convert. He used his position to educate the people about government’s limits. But he also understood, like Edmund Burke and many others, that changing half a century of liberal government would take time.

So, while he couldn’t succeed in every respect as president, and would reach compromises now and then, he tried to push the massive ship of state in the right direction. And he had many successes (too many people focus on the setbacks). He left a legacy that could have been built upon by his successor, but it was not.

Krauthammer never worked for Reagan; I did. That’s not a prerequisite for understanding Reagan, but when an opinion-maker is wrong about him, my personal experience of Reagan obliges me to defend him. Krauthammer suggests to me that he still doesn’t understand why Reagan was a great leader or the public’s love for him. The public had confidence that when Reagan spoke, he meant what he said; He left no room for question about what he believed in, and that he would try to implement policies consistent with his long-held positions.

It’s not so much that we long for Reagan, as some dismissively contend (although I note that the candidates themselves invoke his name endlessly as a substitute for their own conservative shortcomings, perceived or otherwise). It is rather that we long for someone who can lead as he did. We don’t seek perfection (even if we could define it), and we don’t claim Reagan was perfect.

Krauthammer says he’s not putting Reagan down. If that is the case, then he nonetheless has a funny way of describing him. But even if Reagan never existed, surely there is some standard by which we judge the candidates. For some of us, that standard is the same standard we used to judge prior candidates, including Reagan. To say all the candidates are fine is to say nothing. To say that major aspects of their records don’t square with recent campaign statements is more than nitpicking. Now is the time to be inquisitive, engaged, and discerning. That’s what primaries are all about. That’s not to say that there aren’t worthy candidates in the field. But simply saying they’re worthy is unpersuasive.

This isn’t the first election in which a war hero is running for president. We’ve had war heroes who have made lousy presidents. This isn’t the first election involving a successful governor. But they, too, have had mixed presidential records. I would encourage more scrutiny, not less.

As Reagan used to say, “If not now, when; if not us, who?” Take that!

Mark R. Levin is author of the bestselling Men In Black, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, and a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host.


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