As his 100th birthday approaches on Feb. 6, the ghost of Ronald Reagan continues to loom large over America. He is one of the most admired and most popular presidents. The centennial is being marked by a variety of conferences, university symposiums and ceremonies. But it is in the political trenches where the legacy of a president who left office 22 years ago continues to be hotly debated and redefined. Republicans are taking their veneration of the 40th president to new heights. Democrats, meanwhile, are finding that the more time passes, the more there is to like about the man they once caricatured as a doddering B-list actor who built a military colossus on the backs of the poor.
Sarah Palin herself discovered just how jealously her party guards Reagan’s legacy when she had the temerity to compare herself to the former actor and California governor. Smarting from criticism that her decision to star in a television show about Alaska appeared un-presidential, Palin quipped on Fox News in November, “Like, um, wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor, wasn’t he in Bedtime for Bonzo—bozo, something… ” The backlash was immediate. “Excuse me, but this was ignorant even for Mrs. Palin,” wrote Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan in her Wall Street Journal column. She went on to lovingly catalogue Reagan’s lengthy career from actor to union leader to two-term governor of the most populous state, and to standard-bearer for conservative political philosophy. “The point is not, ‘He was a great man and you are a nincompoop,’ ” Noonan concluded. “Though that is true.”
Rush Limbaugh calls him “Ronaldus Magnus.” During the debate among candidates for the post of Republican National Committee chairman in January, the six people running were asked to name their favourite Republican president. Not one mentioned Abraham Lincoln. “Okay,” declared the satisfied moderator, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, after all cited Reagan. “Everybody got that one right.”
For many Democrats, Reagan is no longer a president to scorn, but to study. President Barack Obama let it be known over the holidays that he was reading a biography of Reagan. Their first-term situations are similar: both took office amid a recession, in a moment of national demoralization. Both saw their approval ratings plummet in their first year ahead of mid-term elections, in which their respective parties lost seats. And now as Obama faces an Egypt in turmoil, commentators are recalling Reagan’s dealings with the Soviets and asking, “What would Reagan do?”
There are, of course, important differences. Where Reagan’s recession was caused by interest rate hikes aimed at snuffing out inflation and was quickly reversed, Obama’s was caused by a widespread financial crisis, and recovery has been slow. And while Reagan contended with reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, Obama faces a revolt against an authoritarian strongman who has been a crucial American ally for decades. But the national craving for optimism, whether branded as “hope” or “morning in America,” is the same.
Obama grasped this hunger during the Democratic primary contest against Hillary Clinton in January 2008, when he told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette, “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. He just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
But even as Obama sought to learn from Reagan’s success, he has also watched his agenda, from health care reform to regulatory reform, clash with Reagan’s legacy. Reagan reclaimed the idea of conservatism, making it not just popular and respectable after a half-century of expanding Washington-centric liberalism, but an indelible part of the national identity. “Reagan showed a model of conservatism that was popular, optimistic and forward-looking,” says Steven Hayward, a scholar in residence at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank in Washington.
This legacy is what Obama is grappling with today as he retools White House staff, reaches out to the business community, and looks for compromises with Republicans, argues historian Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, Calif. “Twenty years after he left office, this anti-Washington view, of market forces over the state, is still by and large the prevailing consensus across the country,” says Norton Smith. “In that sense, the ghost of Ronald Reagan has surpassed that of Franklin Roosevelt. The story of Barack Obama’s two years in office is a somewhat painful way in which he discovered that reality.”
Yet the Reagan legacy is more complex. He called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” but also negotiated a major arms reduction treaty with Moscow. And while he passed one of the biggest tax cuts in U.S. history in 1981, he also passed one of the biggest tax hikes the following year. His reforms allowed millions of low-income Americans to stop paying federal income tax. He signed an immigration reform that made it a crime to employ undocumented immigrants—but also gave amnesty to three million people in the country illegally. He raised taxes to shore up Social Security. And his military buildup led to huge deficits.
“He was a principled pragmatist, a practical visionary,” says Norton Smith. “Reagan had a following and credibility among conservatives going back years. He could pass the biggest tax cut and follow it with the biggest tax increase the following year. He had the ability to convince himself he wasn’t raising taxes, he was closing loopholes. That’s what a transforming president does. He convinces us of an alternative reality.
Reagan had a magical quality. A lot of conventional rules that would apply to anyone else were suspended.”
Reagan’s son, Ron, told an audience in Seattle that his father could not be elected as a Republican today because he was “too far to the left.” In a new memoir, My Father at 100, Reagan, a liberal commentator, paints a picture of a gentle man who never raised his voice, who aspired to be an admired force for good in the world, and who had “little in common with the rage-mongering infecting his party today.” Ron Reagan also objects to the “fetishistic veneration” of his father. (He also outraged Reagan admirers by suggesting his father was displaying signs of Alzheimer’s disease while still in office.) His older half-brother, Michael Reagan, a conservative talk show host, calls Ron an “embarrassment,” and has a duelling book out, The New Reagan Revolution: How Ronald Reagan’s Principles Can Restore America’s Greatness, with a foreword by Newt Gingrich.
Jonathan Rauch, a scholar in residence at the Brookings Institution, agrees with Ron Reagan. “He is not by any means the person the Tea Partiers seem to think,” Rauch says of the former president. “I don’t think that Reagan running as the man he was would have a prayer in the Republican primary today. He was pragmatic, his policies were primarily centrist, he never made a serious attempt to cut federal spending in a big way, he raised taxes both as governor and repeatedly as president. He was much more interested in growing the economy than in shrinking government.” While conservatives often quote Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address—”Government is not the solution of our problem, government is the problem”—Rauch notes the quotation is incomplete. “People forget to quote the beginning of the sentence, which said, ‘In our present crisis.’ ” Later in the speech, Reagan said, “It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” “Try telling that to a Tea Partier!” Rauch says.
Reagan’s appeal comes down to his personal popularity, and ability to popularize conservatism, argues Rauch. “What they often failed to understand is that Reagan was popular precisely because he stabilized the welfare state, made it affordable, reduced its excesses. He never tried to eliminate it. If he had, he would have been unpopular,” Rauch says. But AEI’s Hayward disagrees. “The critics who try to make Reagan into a moderate have lost the distinction between his compromises with political reality and his principles. He regretted some of those compromises later on—such as the tax-budget deal of 1982.”
For Obama, those compromises are worth studying, says Norton Smith. “The relevance is that Reagan, a man of strong ideological conviction, nevertheless found a way in a hostile political climate to address a number of big issues.” And for Republicans, it’s never too late to come to the altar. On Feb. 4, the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., will host two days of festivities marking the centennial. Former vice-president Dick Cheney will be there. And so will a chastened Sarah Palin—she will deliver the keynote speech.