Politics & Policy

Reagan the Statesman

He inevitably had to make choices.

Ronald Reagan, God rest his soul, has been dead for seven years. This is long enough for liberals to feel safe making him their pet Republican.

In their telling, Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times, passed tax increases, negotiated with the Soviets, and then pretty much called it a day, adjourning to share a friendly after-hours drink with his bosom buddy, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. These heterodoxies would get him ostracized in today’s Republican party, proving that the GOP has been hijacked by dangerous extremists.

Needless to say, that’s what they called Reagan and his supporters back when the Gipper was alive and governing. Beyond their obvious opportunism, though, the newly minted Reagan nostalgics of the Left have a point: Reagan didn’t get everything he wanted, and he had to compromise. This isn’t a telling polemical point so much as a banality, a truism about any leader in a robust democratic society.

Reagan inevitably had to make choices. Confronting a Democratic House, he could cut taxes and fund a defense build-up, or try to balance the budget. He had the right priorities; the economic growth he fostered and victory in the Cold War made the budget surpluses of the 1990s possible.

As for raising taxes, Reagan acceded to a big tax increase in 1982 only after a historic, much larger cut in 1981. He gave a little back after finding a shift in the political climate on Capitol Hill too difficult to resist. (He later regretted surrendering, since the budget cuts promised in exchange for the tax hike never materialized.) With the Soviets, he negotiated only when he knew he had a position of strength. These moves were the zigs and the zags of Reagan pursuing his highest goals of fundamentally lower taxes, a freer economy, and the defeat of the Soviet Union.

Few on the left considered these goals reasonable at the time. They seem so commonsensical now because Reagan effected them, against the pitched resistance of his adversaries and the contempt of polite opinion. Reagan changed the definition of “reasonable.”

The liberals’ hankering for Reagan is only possible when they abstract him from the context of his times and focus on his pragmatic tactics to the exclusion of his fixed ideological goals. Some conservatives make the opposite mistake by ignoring Reagan’s adept maneuvering, as if the only ingredient to his success was maintaining the right convictions.

Both sides, then, tend to misunderstand the well-springs of Reagan’s achievement. Having grand goals is easy, if you don’t care much about reaching them. Cutting deals is easy, if you don’t care much about where they take you. Knowing how to accommodate reality, when to give way and when to stand firm, while never deviating from your ultimate purposes, is the stuff of statesmanship.

When such statesmanship is in the service of transformative and noble ends, it deserves honor for all time. It is what defines a Reagan or a Lincoln. The Great Emancipator’s later career was partly devoted to the perilous work of slowly pushing the envelope of public opinion toward the abolition of slavery. The abolitionists hated his compromises and caution. He, in turn, hated their self-righteous purity. But both the abolitionist agitation and the shrewd political leadership were indispensable to changes unimaginable on the cusp of the Civil War. Lincoln called radicals in his party “the unhandiest devils in the world to deal with — but after all their faces are set Zionward.”

The tea partiers in Congress will have to make their own bows to statesmanship. If David Gergen is ever on CNN praising them for their supposed responsibility, they might as well not have come to Washington in the first place. They should never become house-broken. On the other hand, they can’t let tactics become destructive to their ends, or oppose anything that doesn’t meet a test of absolute purity.

The road to Zion is always frustrating and winding.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.


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