This week marks Ronald Reagan’s 103rd birthday. Non-conservatives often mock the right’s nostalgia for the fortieth president, but the enthusiasm is as well placed as the FDR portraits that hung above many a New Deal Democrat’s mantle.
Reagan was one of just two political figures associated with the modern conservative movement to win the Republican presidential nomination, and he’s the only one to make it to the White House. Ever since his 49-state landslide reelection in 1984—he came within one vote per Minnesota precinct of making it a 50-state sweep—conservatives have held the reins in the GOP but have been unable to steer.
Agree with him or not, Reagan was the only conservative president since World War II to produce policy accomplishments that rival those of postwar liberal presidents. (Reagan is arguably the only conservative president since World War II, though I’d make a case for Eisenhower.)
Ideological foes, including the current president, recognize Reagan as someone who changed the political landscape in the country. The two main problems Reagan was elected to solve—stagflation and a reheated Cold War—are but a distant memory. And while he manifestly failed to shrink government or much advance social conservatism, he carved a permanent place for people who cared about both objectives in the Republican coalition.
No subsequent Republican or conservative leader has possessed Reagan’s unlikely combination of political talents. Consider the Republican responses to the State of the Union address. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was personable. Mike Lee sought to apply conservative principles to contemporary problems. Rand Paul emphasized economic growth.
Reagan would have been able to do all of those things at once.
Yet even though the Reagan years are justly remembered as Camelot for conservatives, his legacy sometimes leads his successors astray. Here are a few areas where imitating Reagan like an Elvis impersonator mimics the King of Rock has been bad for conservatism.
1. Excessive optimism. William F. Buckley Jr. once described conservatism as “the politics of reality.” Post-Reagan, it has sometimes taken a more romantic form: the politics of wishful thinking.
Politically, Reagan’s sunny personality was preferable to the doom and gloom of Barry Goldwater. It made a host of conservative positions, from cutting social spending to banning abortion, seem more palatable. But the personal shouldn’t always be confused with the political.
There’s a lot to be said for the virtues of markets and the power of individual innovation. After Reagan, conservatives haven’t been shy about saying it. But government needs to be limited for two far less cheerful reasons. The first is that human beings cannot be trusted with too much power. The second, as John Derbyshire put it in We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism, “a well-thought-out conviction that earthly affairs cannot be much improved by the hand of man—most certainly not by the hand of government.”
Optimism also misled conservatives about political affairs, and the extent their countrymen agreed with them. It was not morning in America, not even in 1984, based on a slew of cultural indices even if the economy was booming. There was no moral majority, at least not one based on Judeo-Christian morality, as Christian right founding father Paul Weyrich mournfully concluded in the late 1990s.
2. More Paine than Burke. National Affairs editor Yuval Levin recently published The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. It may surprise you to learn that Reagan often borrowed more from the thinker Levin associates (albeit too simply) with the birth of the left.
Reagan’s conservatism was primarily ideological, not, as Russell Kirk would have it, “the negation of ideology.” It was both a policy checklist and a set of first principles. America was often treated as an idea more than a specific nation or people. And while Reagan’s signature phrase in this area, depicting the United States as a “shining city on a hill,” came from John Winthrop, he often sounded as if he agreed with Paine: “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”
In fact, Reagan often quoted Paine as saying, “We have it within our power to begin the world over again.” It’s a distant cousin of George W. Bush’s declaration in his second inaugural address: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”
As former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan pointed out, Bush’s Paine-like inaugural wasn’t particularly conservative. “The most moving speeches summon us to the cause of what is actually possible,” she wrote. “Perfection in the life of man on earth is not.”
3. Triumphalism in foreign affairs. “We win, they lose.” “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Conservatives, especially neoconservatives, are fond of employing those Cold War Reagan catchphrases in the service of confrontation and conflict abroad.
Along with generic appeals to military power, these lines can go a long way toward dressing up hawkishness as a “neo-Reaganite foreign policy.” Negotiations with Iran? We win, they lose. War isn’t going well? Tough, we win, they lose.
Fortunately, Reagan didn’t actually govern like that. His moralistic rhetoric was important and he was a sincere anti-communist, but he also disliked war and understood the limits of force. He built up the armed forces but also engaged in diplomacy with the Soviets. He kept military interventions small and abandoned them when they threatened to become quagmires.
Many of Reagan’s successors try to reduce him to Dirty Harry, in much the same way liberals once misunderstood him as Ronnie Ray Gun. (As it turns out, Clint Eastwood’s conservatism isn’t that hawkish either.) Even the “Evil Empire” speech was more nuanced than some Republicans remember it, containing admissions (“Our nation, too, has a legacy of evil with which it must deal”) that would be considered an “apology tour” if delivered by Barack Obama.
4. Economic liberties over civil liberties. It was naïve of conservatives to think that Reagan could reverse the post-New Deal trajectory of the federal government in eight years. But while he failed to cut spending, he did control its growth. Inflation-adjusted non-defense discretionary spending actually fell in his first term and barely budged in his second, despite Republicans losing the Senate in 1986. Reagan also got the country awfully close to a flat tax, with just two marginal rates. The top rate fell all the way from 70 percent to 28 percent.
On the negative side of the ledger, Reagan was not always as good on personal freedoms. He was a critic of draft registration and opposed a California ballot initiative mucking into the sex lives of public school teachers. But even though he didn’t fire the first shots, the War on Drugs is a big part of his legacy. Only now are conservative officeholders beginning to appreciate the cost to life and liberty.
5. Republican presidents are a conservative’s best friend. Oddly, this one didn’t take root immediately after Reagan took office. Conservatives were quick to turn against George H.W. Bush, Reagan’s vice president, when he disappointed them as president. This included many Republicans in Congress during the 1990 tax hike vote and a third of the Republican primary electorate in 1992.
Under Reagan, however, conservatives got used to embracing Republican presidents rather than holding them at arm’s length. They preferred this relationship to the frostier one they had with Bush 41. So Bush 43 was treated more like Reagan than Bush 41 or Richard Nixon.
The results included the biggest new entitlement program since the Great Society, a $700 billion Wall Street bailout that grew into a political trust fund, bigger deficits and faster discretionary spending growth than prevailed under Bill Clinton, and a slew of government-expanding legislation.
All in service of a man who reportedly sneered, “There is no [conservative] movement” and whose “compassionate conservatism” should have been greeted by conservatives as Nancy Reagan received Bush 41’s “kinder, gentler nation”: “Kinder and gentler than whom?” The conservative movement has been too quick to take its cues from whatever Bush—or Romney or McCain—the GOP serves up.
Unfortunately, that is all some conservatives have in mind when they try to “win one for the Gipper.” The Reagan nostalgia isn’t misplaced. But the priorities of the some of the nostalgics are.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?