Two schools of thought exist regarding Ronald Reagan. One venerates Reagan as the pinnacle of conservatism, whose legacy holds the key to Republican renewal. The second suggests his legacy belongs in the same category as Ghostbusters, valley girl accents, and Wacky WallWalkers: a thing of the past irrelevant to modern politics.
Both positions are flawed. Reagan’s life certainly teaches important lessons for conservatives to learn. Those who diminish the greatness of his accomplishments don’t know what they’re talking about. He played a huge role in the fall of Communism and did more to advance conservatism than any other president. Consider: when Reagan began his Presidency, the top marginal tax rate was at seventy percent; when he left, it was at twenty-eight percent.
However, in the hands of Reagan’s greatest fans, Reagan has become more than a great man. He has become the political equivalent of Barbie: an ill-proportioned, unrealistic figure by which we measure candidates for office. We will always find them wanting in comparison to our image of Reagan. Not even Ronald Reagan himself could measure up to the standards of the myth.
What is the proper view of Reagan? Five realizations will put this great man and his life in the proper perspective:
1) Reagan won’t be reincarnated as the next leader of the GOP.
This ought to go without saying, but it doesn’t. I repeatedly encounter folks who expect history to do an exact rerun, who argue someone can’t be the next great conservative leader based on a difference in personal background. One argument even insists Sarah Palin complete a second term as Governor before running for President because Reagan did. The irony: Reagan didn’t. He ran for President in 1968, after two years as Governor.
I have news for such folk: Reagan is not the Republican version of the Dalai Lama. No one becomes a great leader by mimicking the last great leader. Reagan didn’t become Reagan by attempting to be the next Lincoln. The next great conservative President will bring his (or her) own unique experiences, personality, and style to the White House.
2) Reagan was not the perfect conservative.
As President, he agreed to several tax increases. Two of his four appointments to the Supreme Court (Kennedy and O’Connor) disappointed conservatives time and again. He signed the 1986 Immigration amnesty. Some of the concessions he offered the Soviets angered conservatives. Reagan endorsed the 1993 Brady Bill.
Looking back at the gubernatorial days, in 1975, Reason Magazine enumerated many of Reagan’s breaks with conservatism during his eight years as governor: increasing sales tax, massive increases in public school funding (105%), state funding for junior colleges (323%), and grants and loans to college students (900%.) Fetal rights advocates (i.e. pro-lifers) should add concern with Reagan signing a bill liberalizing abortion.
I say this not to bash Reagan, but to point out perfect Conservatives are mythical. Search for a deviation from conservative orthodoxy to use against a political leader, and you will find it. To expect perfection from our political leaders does violence to common sense. To invoke Ronald Reagan turns him into Hercules—or Superman if you prefer.
3) Reagan was a Conservative
Rush Limbaugh once declared President Bush was conservative, but not a conservative. The distinction seemed odd, but thinking about it years later, it makes sense.
Bush held overall conservative political views, but Bush’s conservatism didn’t define him. He didn’t enter politics over concern about the growing size of government or the culture of death. He entered politics to serve his state and his country, with a policy program being secondary.
Reagan, however, was a conservative whose involvement in politics was spurred by his political beliefs and his desire to change the direction of the country, in both domestic and foreign policy. The reason most conservatives think so little of Reagan’s flaws is that he truly came to Washington to lead a conservative Revolution. Despite his failures, conservatives see Reagan as one of them.
The upshot for conservatives: if you want real conservative leadership, look for someone whose conservative ideals are fundamental to their political life rather than incidental.
4) Personality matters.
How good was Ronald Reagan at attracting Democratic voters? Future Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich voted for Reagan. Twice. Blagojevich didn’t become a conservative because of Reagan. Heck, he wasn’t even a moderate. So why did he vote for Reagan? Reagan made people feel good about their country again, with warmth and optimism.
In recent years, I’ve had to abandon the view that personality should be irrelevant when choosing a political candidate. While a candidate’s principles are extremely important, without the personality to connect with the American people and to effectively wield the presidency, it doesn’t matter what your principles are. You won’t have the ability to act. Now, charisma alone is also not enough to elect a candidate. Bill Clinton had good personal favorability ratings, but didn’t produce any lasting accomplishments for Democrats due to other failings in his character.
That said, I’d rather have a candidate that I agreed with most things on, who had the right personality and style to be a successful president, over someone who agrees with me on everything, but whose campaign will go nowhere because the candidate’s style is off-putting to the average American.
The best political leaders are a combination of strong character, solid principles, and a personality that connects with the American people. Conservatives must look for the strongest combination of these three when choosing a leader.
5) Act as if America’s best days are ahead of it.
When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be I will face it with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.
Ronald Reagan’s last letter to his country, upon finding out he had Alzheimer’s, brimmed with optimism for this country. Today, conservatives need to rediscover this optimism about our country’s future. Too many live in the past and its victories, and limit our present horizons. Telling people that America’s best days ended twenty years ago is not Reaganesque. It’s a sure-fire way to demoralize your base.
We need to look forward, not backwards. We must be guided by a long-term conservative vision that’s appealing and hopeful. Reagan’s ghost cannot win elections or fight battles for us. To be successful today, we must learn from the past rather than living there.