The news that President Obama decided to read a biography of Ronald Reagan during his Christmas holiday in Hawaii might be taken as a sign that Reagan’s triumph over liberals is complete. Can anyone imagine John F. Kennedy admitting he was reading a biography of Calvin Coolidge, or Jimmy Carter taking in lessons from Dwight Eisenhower? This represents the culmination of a remarkable turnabout in Reagan’s reputation, most notably among liberals, who might have been expected to do to Reagan what an earlier generation of partisan historians did to Coolidge. Instead, we have seen a raft of books from liberal grandees such as Richard Reeves and Sean Wilentz giving Reagan his due.
But while conservatives should pocket these unexpected concessions, they should also note that the admiration of Reagan in the media-academic complex is highly qualified and mostly limited to his role in the Cold War. (And even this story they get wrong.) About the domestic-policy Reagan, liberals are currently engaging in a clever two-step — either excoriating Reagan with recycled 1980s clichés (favors the rich, hates the poor and minorities, reckless deregulation, and so forth), or making him out to be a crypto-liberal who tacitly set out to shore up the welfare state while cloaking himself in anti-big-government rhetoric. Ever so slowly, liberals are attempting a subtle revisionism. This revisionism is alarming not simply as an offense against historical accuracy, but also because the Liberal Revised Standard Version of Reagan will be used against the Tea Party and congressional Republicans in the months and years to come. We can expect to hear (and have already heard once or twice) that even Reagan didn’t attack entitlements the way Paul Ryan and today’s radical House Republicans propose to do.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Left has pulled off a historical Brinks job on a Republican whose achievements and popularity could not be destroyed with a direct attack. A hundred years ago, the leading Progressives appropriated Abraham Lincoln for their cause, even as they explicitly attacked Lincoln’s (and the Founders’) central political philosophy of natural rights. It culminated in the chutzpah of Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration in 1929 that “it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own,” and in the early 1990s with New York’s ultra-liberal governor, Mario Cuomo, ostentatiously embracing Lincoln because “he’s reassuring to politicians like me.”
The liberal revision of Reagan has been unfolding for a while now, and at the center of it is the effort to separate him from his conservative beliefs. Joshua Green wrote in The Washington Monthly in January 2003 that “many of [Reagan’s] actions as president wound up facilitating liberal objectives. What this clamor of adulation is seeking to deny is that beyond his conservative legacy, Ronald Reagan has bequeathed a liberal one.” He raised taxes! He talked to the Soviets and reached arms agreements! Green’s article was provocatively adorned with a cartoon rendering of Reagan as FDR, complete with upturned cigarette holder. The late John Patrick Diggins, an unorthodox liberal who was a close friend of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s, argued in his 2007 book Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History that Reagan deserves to be considered one of the four greatest American presidents, alongside Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. His Upper West Side neighbors are still picking up their jaws off the floor. However, Diggins makes Reagan into a crypto-liberal: “Far from being a conservative, Reagan was the great liberating spirit of modern American history, a political romantic impatient with the status quo. . . . Reagan’s relation to liberalism may illuminate modern America more than his relation to conservatism.”
Jonathan Rauch offers the most complete case for Reagan as a crypto-liberal pragmatist. In a 2009 National Journal article entitled “Republicans Have Reagan All Wrong,” Rauch asserts that Reagan was not a Reaganite. He builds a purely circumstantial case. Reagan cut Washington’s share of GDP by only 1 percent, raised taxes several times, ran up huge deficits, and backed away from cutting Social Security and Medicare. The last item on Rauch’s list — entitlements — is his strongest. In 1986 Reagan abandoned Senate Republicans after they had passed cuts to Social Security and Medicare with great difficulty, and Rauch takes this as a sign that Reagan never wanted to cut the welfare state in any serious way. This overlooks that fact that Reagan did make a run at Social Security in 1981, got his head handed to him, and several months later had to be talked out of making a prime-time TV address to the nation to push the idea again. He expressed disappointment in his diary in 1983 when the Greenspan commission on Social Security came in with a conventional tax-hiking plan to keep the system alive. Under pressure in the 1984 campaign, Reagan promised not to touch Social Security, and part of his decision not to back Senate Republicans in 1986 stemmed from the simple belief that he ought to live up to that promise.
Reagan said after leaving office that his largest disappointment was not being able to control spending growth more effectively, and his budget record might have been better if he’d gotten more GOP support on Capitol Hill for several of his vetoes of big spending bills. He vetoed pork-laden water and transportation bills in 1987, but was overridden by a handful of GOP defectors. Reagan expressed scorn for timid Hill Republicans in his diary, often complaining more about them — “We had rabbits when we needed tigers” — than about Democrats. (One Republican who especially disappointed him on spending restraint was first-term senator Mitch McConnell.)
There is something passing strange about the way in which liberals now claim to understand Reagan better than today’s conservatives do, yet somehow were unable to make him out when he was right in front of them. And nothing belies the current liberal revisionism more than the trope that the Reagan years were a model of comity compared with today’s polarized climate. To be sure, Reagan could clink glasses and swap Irish jokes with Tip O’Neill, but they often argued bluntly in public and in private. We have forgotten, for example, this O’Neill attack on Reagan: “The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America, and who likes to ride a horse. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
It should never be forgotten that the Left hated Reagan just as lustily as they hated George W. Bush, and with some of the same venomous affectations, such as the reductio ad Hitlerum. The key difference is that in Reagan’s years there was no Internet with which to magnify these derangements, and the 24-hour cable-news cycle was in its infancy. But the signs were certainly abundant. In 1982, the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London held a vote for the most hated people of all time, with the result being: Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Dracula. Democratic congressman William Clay of Missouri charged that Reagan was trying to replace “the Bill of Rights with fascist precepts lifted verbatim from Mein Kampf.” A desperate Jimmy Carter charged that Reagan was engaging in “stirrings of hate” in the 1980 campaign. Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad drew a panel depicting Reagan plotting a fascist putsch in a darkened Munich beer hall. Harry Stein (now a conservative convert) wrote in Esquire that the voters who supported Reagan were like the “good Germans” in “Hitler’s Germany.” In The Nation, Alan Wolfe wrote: “The United States has embarked on a course so deeply reactionary, so negative and mean-spirited, so chauvinistic and self-deceptive that our times may soon rival the McCarthy era.”
And in discussing Reagan’s greatest acknowledged achievement — ending the Cold War — liberals conveniently omit that they opposed him at every turn. Who can forget the relentless scorn heaped on Reagan for the “evil empire” speech and the Strategic Defense Initiative? Historian Henry Steele Commager said the “evil empire” speech “was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.” “What is the world to think,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote, “when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem a simplistic theology?”
There’s a larger point here for which liberals need to be held to account. The substantive criticism liberals made of Reagan’s foreign policy was that his confrontational approach to the Soviet Union would reinforce the Kremlin’s hard-line “hawks,” undermine liberal reformers, and maybe even lead to war. Reagan and his key aides (especially his second national-security adviser, William Clark) perceived the opposite to be the case, and were vindicated when the confused reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Liberals who now laud Reagan’s Cold War statecraft should be made to explain why they were wrong and Reagan right, for it gets directly to liberalism’s sentimental view of human affairs — which affects current policy, from the War on Terror to crime and the welfare state. More broadly, they should be made to explain why they appreciate the virtues of conservatives only after they are gone from the scene (as we have also seen with Goldwater, Eisenhower, and even Nixon to some extent).
To be sure, Reagan’s political practices were idiosyncratic, and his conservatism was not fully recognized by many on the right who wish to emulate him today. This conservatism was not the “stand athwart history” kind, as is evident in Reagan’s love for a quotation that drives many conservative intellectuals slightly batty. As George Will put it, “[Reagan] is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again.’ Any time, any place, that is nonsense.”
Reagan’s invocation of Paine, as well as his quotation of John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon, expresses the core of his optimism and belief in the dynamism of American society, a dynamism that can have unconservative effects. But he explained his use of Paine in conservative terms way back in his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? “The classic liberal,” Reagan wrote, “used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a longtime refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’”
Reagan’s mixture of the revolutionary or progressive Paine with the Jeffersonian limited-government Paine is a potent formula in American politics that liberals have abandoned. Regardless of the tensions in Reagan’s version, it exposed liberalism as a pessimistic and increasingly reactionary faction. It was telling that the Democratic party didn’t play FDR’s anthem “Happy Days Are Here Again” at its 1984 convention, not wanting to credit Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme. Rep. Richard Gephardt expressed their mood when he said, “It’s getting closer and closer to midnight.”
Above all, Reagan’s conservatism was rooted in constitutionalism, which is the aspect most closely connecting it with the Tea Party movement and the conservative challenge to Obama. Reagan understood that many of our problems descended from the decay of the Constitution’s restraints on the centralization of power in Washington. In one of his private letters, from 1979, Reagan wrote to a friend that “the permanent structure of our government with its power to pass regulations has eroded if not in effect repealed portions of our Constitution.”
The story of the Reagan administration’s attempts to revive constitutional limits on government power is too complicated to summarize briefly, but one aspect of it deserves notice today: the second-term initiative of Attorney General Edwin Meese to start a controversy over originalism and the Constitution. In launching this controversy in such a high-profile manner, Meese reopened a fundamental quarrel that liberals had thought was more or less closed. No prominent Republican had seriously advanced such an argument since Calvin Coolidge. The public fight Meese started over original intent, legal scholar Johnathan O’Neill wrote in 2005, “constituted the most direct constitutional debate between the executive branch and the Court since the New Deal.” Meese and his Justice Department compatriots were attempting nothing less than to wrest the Constitution away from the legal elite and return it to the people. The reaction of not only the usual suspects such as the New York Times editorial page but also two sitting Supreme Court justices and many prominent voices in the legal academy ensured that this issue would not wilt like a spring flower, and indeed it is still with us. It was a de facto declaration of war on the Left, and it contributed to the defeat of Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987. It looks in retrospect to be one of the most significant initiatives of the Reagan years, especially given the emergence of the Tea Party movement.
Mark Twain is credited with saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Reagan’s ascent coincided with the “tax revolt” of the late 1970s, and the tax revolt looks similar to today’s Tea Party protests. Liberals attacked the tax revolt in the same terms they use to attack today’s Tea Party. Sen. George McGovern worried that the tax revolt had “undertones of racism.” Byron Dorgan, then North Dakota tax commissioner and later a senator, said that a vote for California’s Proposition 13 (a property-tax cap the state’s voters enacted in 1978) was “a vote for latent prejudice.” The Washington Post’s Haynes Johnson said the measure was an “exhibition of widespread public mean-spiritedness.”
In the 1970s, Reagan spoke often of a populist “prairie fire” of resistance to big government, and he saw the tax revolt as the match igniting the fire that swept him to office in 1980. Yet the Tea Party makes the “prairie fire” of the tax revolt look like a small campfire by comparison. It is distinct from and superior to the tax revolt precisely to the extent that it represents a populist constitutional movement, challenging out-of-control government in a way that goes beyond arguments about tax rates.
It is exactly on this point that Reagan’s far-sightedness and his legacy become relevant. During the 1980s, there was little popular ferment behind Reagan and Meese’s campaign to revive constitutional originalism, but they pursued it anyway. When today’s liberals disingenuously invoke Reagan against the Tea Party or Republican attempts in Congress to restrain the government, Reagan’s constitutional views should be thrown in their faces. The tea partiers might well be considered Reagan’s children.
Several pundits suggested that the 1994 election, which delivered the first GOP House majority in 40 years, should be thought of as “Reagan’s third landslide.” If so, November 2 of last year could be regarded as his fourth. And if conservatives remain faithful to Ronald Reagan’s principles and practices, it won’t be the last. Happy 100th birthday, Mr. President.
— Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989. This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2011, issue of National Review.