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Five Ways Reagan Nostalgia Misleads Conservatives

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.

change_me

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 [1]. “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 [2]. 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 [3] 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? [4]

Follow @jimantle [5]

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "Five Ways Reagan Nostalgia Misleads Conservatives"

#1 Comment By Wes On February 3, 2014 @ 3:02 am

“He kept military interventions small and abandoned them when they threatened to become quagmires.”

One of those military interventions under Reagan that threatened to become a “quagmire” was the Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1982-1984. It supposedly became a quagmire after the bombings of the U.S. and French military barracks in Beirut in October 1983.

But right after the bombings occurred, Reagan didn’t originally plan to pull U.S. forces out of Lebanon. Reagan began pulling out U.S. forces from Lebanon in February 1984 because both Congress, especially liberal Democrats, and the risk-averse Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, opposed continued U.S. military involvement in Lebanon after the bombings. Both liberal Democrats in Congress and Weinberger had opposed U.S. military involvement in Lebanon even before the bombings.

Before the bombings, liberal Democrats in Congress had been pushing the Reagan administration to set a timeline for withdrawal. This has been purported to have encouraged Hezbollah and Iran to launch the bombings in order to get U.S. and European forces to pull out of Lebanon. But the bombings could have caused many fewer deaths if the barracks guards had carried loaded weapons and the barracks had a barrier more substantial than the barbed wire the bomber drove over easily.

In retaliation for the bombings, France launched an airstrike against alleged Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) positions. President Reagan assembled his national security team and planned to target barracks housing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) believed to be training Hezbollah militants. A joint American-French air assault on the camp where the bombing was planned was also approved by Reagan and French President Francois Mitterrand. But the risk-averse Weinberger lobbied successfully against the mission, because at the time it was not certain that Iran was behind the attack, but Secretary of State George Schultz supported retaliation. (Weinberger often butted heads with both of Reagan’s Secretaries of State, Shultz and Alexander Haig, who were both more hawkish than him.)

Osama Bin Laden said that one of the reasons that encouraged him to declare war on America was the fact that the America didn’t retaliate for the Beirut barracks bombings and pulled out of Lebanon soon after the bombings. To Bin Laden, this showed that America was weak and had a lack of resolve.

“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.”

There is nothing wrong with saying that the U.S. has done evil too, as long as we don’t try to make a moral equivalence between us and our enemies. And Obama has also never said anything as strong and provocative in speeches on national security as Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” “We win, they lose,” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

“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.)”

Well this just shows that many Hollywood people take the difference between fiction and reality way too seriously. The same goes with all of the actors and filmmakers who shoot up guns in movies and on TV, but who are for gun-control in real-life. Fiction, no matter how bizarre or fantastical, always reflects human reality.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 3, 2014 @ 4:34 am

Pres Reagan’s time was largely defined by a bipolar world.

It is hardly that today.

#3 Comment By Viking On February 3, 2014 @ 7:38 am

A much needed look into the actual legacy of Reagan, thank you. Btw, I believe that the second Paine quote is “We have it within our power to *begin* the world over again”, not “being” as you have it in the third paragraph under “More Paine than Burke”. [Fixed –ed.]

#4 Comment By rjgarfunkel On February 3, 2014 @ 8:42 am

In the wake of the public mourning of Ronald Reagan, our 40th President of the United States, his supporters made certain claims. One of these claims was that he was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. As an avid student of history and a witness to those events I must beg to disagree. The process that led to its welcomed collapse was in the works long before he was elected. In a sense it was a result of the confluence of disparate events and circumstances. In 1982 after 13 years of litigation against ATT by the Justice Department, the case was settled, and ATT agreed to give up their 22 Bell Systems and their subsequent monopoly over technology. This “breakup” began a “golden age” of communication that eventually resulted in fax machines, cable television, cell phones and the Internet. Meanwhile in Poland, after 2 months of labor turmoil at the Lenin Shipyards, Gdansk, in 1980 that had paralyzed the country, the Polish government gave into the demands of the workers. This of course was before Ronald Reagan was elected. Over the next few years, Poland, in need for “hard” foreign currency was starting to invite Polish-American retirees from the steel industry to come back and live in Poland. With their large union pensions they were able to buy “dachas”, or country houses and live like princes. This reality was not lost on Walesa, who saw his workers starving, as opposed to American steel workers who were “rich” and now “landed gentry.”

Others soon became aware of this reality and eventually through the lowering of phone rates, and the development of the fax machines, etc, communication between citizens of the Eastern Bloc and the West opened up. Hungary started to liberalize in 1989 and a flow of East German citizens started to circumvent the Berlin Wall as they traveled through Hungary to West Germany. So the proverbial “flood-gate” was opened, and it could not be shut. By 1991 the old Warsaw Pact countries had removed their Communist bosses and Soviet troops finally went home. Without their client states, the Soviet system was finally exposed as the economic “basket case” it was, and they shut down the whole bankrupt operation. All in all, his real credit should be for the following; the useless and expensive 600 ship navy, the invasion of tiny Grenada, SDI, the Strategic Defense Imitative (Star Wars), Iran-Contra scandal, the death of 240+ Marines in Beirut, the stock market collapse of 1987, and the tripling of the National Debt, vetoing sanctions against South Africa, the speech at the SS cemetery in Bitburg, backing military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, and the Philippines, arming Sadaam Hussein, voodoo economics (George Bush’s phrase), inaction against the AIDS epidemic, the nearly 200 members of his administration that faced indictment and prosecution, his appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, the S & L scandal that stuck the taxpayers with a bill approaching a trillion dollars, his relentless attacks on affirmative action, his deregulation of broadcasting gave rise to today’s monopolistic media industry, and a host of other wonderful accomplishments. Ronald Reagan got the last laugh in the end. He is still fooling the impotent media with his “teflon” image that was carefully crafted by his handlers, apologists and sycophants.

So we have seen what has happened. The GOP/Right has encouraged the lowering of taxes, the conglomeration of industry, the exporting of jobs overseas, the deregulation of industry, and the accumulation of greater money in fewer hands. Now, as in 1929, less people own more of America! In the midst of this incredible increase in executive compensation, Ronald Reagan’s administration lowered the highest tax brackets by more than 60% from 71% to 28% in 1986, while raising the bottom tax rate from 11 to 15%. In reality the Reagan Administration created two tax brackets. The poorest earners paid up to 15% and multi-millionaires paid a little more than double? Did this increase revenue to the Treasury? No! No wonder we experienced record deficits. Did it increase wealth to the wealthiest? Yes! Recent articles have debunked the “urban myth” promulgated by the flat-taxer’s and other anti-tax groups that tax cuts increase revenues. In fact, tax cuts without expense reductions create greater deficits. With that in mind, the Reagan years offered some of the biggest deficits, (tripling the National Debt), continued high unemployment, averaging over 7% in his tenure, and great private sector increases in wealth.

#5 Comment By Bob Wilcox On February 3, 2014 @ 8:44 am

Kind of like how some neocon Republicans try to co-opt MLK, saying he’d be pro-war if he were alive today, etc. Do they remember what he said about Vietnam? Or how about him pointing out that “our nation [America] was born in genocide” against Native Americans? (Which is true, by the way).

#6 Comment By rjgarfunkel On February 3, 2014 @ 8:44 am

Reagan’s legacy, for better or worse, will have to stand the test of history. Many people loved McKinley and Harding in their time, and because of their deaths in office they were lionized. In the same sense JFK, being struck down at a young age, was mourned almost universally. In a sense, every one emoted regarding the death of JFK. They saw in his death, the loss of innocence and youth. But, JFK’s legacy of Camelot and the new Frontier, had a greater half-life then Harding’s or McKinley’s, and for obvious reasons. Reagan was a genial guy, whose familiar visage was pleasing to many. No doubt, the fact that he survived an assassin’s bullets endeared him to many. He was seen as a survivor, and most thought he had a decent self-effacing sense of humor.

All in all, the GOP’s has been desperate for heroes. McKinley was seen by history as a white man’s burden imperialist who was all for business at the expense of the working man. Teddy Roosevelt was too progressive and abandoned the GOP and scuttled the 2nd term aspirations of the ineffectual William Howard Taft. Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were seen as failures. Eisenhower, though a WWII icon, failed to move us forward. Three recessions, failure on the farms, diplomatic mistakes and a crumbling infrastructure, doomed Eisenhower to mediocrity. Nixon was impeached and though sharp, more moderate then any of his GOP predecessors was done in by his paranoia and lack of core values. Just listen to the guy’s own words on tape! So we are left with the two Bushes, the first one, a Peter-Principle fool, who even squandered the popularity and success of a war, and the second an utter disaster and maybe our worst president. So the GOP is left with the Great Communicator! For my money he was an uniformed dolt, who was manipulated by his handlers, and finally was set straight by his concerned, loving, and mixed-up politically-speaking wife, who saw how his staff had abused him!

#7 Comment By David Naas On February 3, 2014 @ 10:44 am

Intelligent nuance.
Damnit!
Rushbo will be after your hide, fella.

#8 Comment By Barry On February 3, 2014 @ 11:09 am

“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.”

Not to mention a disastrous war and a sequel to the Great Depression.

#9 Comment By Frank Stain On February 3, 2014 @ 11:53 am

Most of the points here seem quite superficial as they are really about political tactics, or psychological attitudes, not about ideas.
And they do not talk of the one area where Reagan was not only an unqualified success, but where that success laid the foundation of our present predicament. Reagan’s unquestionable success was to restore the absolute social and cultural power of economic wealth. In the post-war era, the capacity of economic wealth to translate into power was constrained by very high tax rates, as well as heavy regulations that forced wealth to work within a framework dedicated to ensuring shared prosperity. The result was the most prosperous middle class anywhere in history, affordable higher education for most, and broad-based mobility and inclusion in social institutions and the goods they distribute. Instead of seeking concentration, wealth was made to work for the common good.
What Reagan did was to liberate economic wealth from the constraints on it power which had been put in place in the post-war period. Almost forty years later, with the political power of labor crushed and economic wealth now so powerful that it has captured the only countervailing power capable of withstanding it, viz., political power, the dream Reagan worked for is here.

And you can see how he did it in a few easy graphs. First, he crushed the power of organized labor, making the exercise of power by wage earners virtually impossible
[6]

Secondly, with workers powerless, it would no longer be necessary for those with economic power to share with workers the gains from economic productivity. So, it is entirely unsurprising that the Gordian knot between wages and productivity was definitively cut in the Reagan era
[7]

Thirdly, with labor under severe pressure, it was possible to severely trim the amount of GDP that had to be shared with workers, meaning more was accrued by those with economic power. Labor share of GDP has dropped precipitously
[8]

Fourthly, trade deficits showed up under Reagan, leaking demand and thereby increasing domestic unemployment, placing even more pressure on workers
[9]

Fifthly and finally, with workers’ salaries stagnant, public AND private debt totally exploded. During the next decades, the financial sector would also become a net debtor for the first time
Again, like in all the other graphs, you will see that the line starts to shift at about 1980
[10]

With wages stagnant in perpetuity, and the overwhelming majority reliant on loans from the financial sector for essential needs, and with inflation kept artificially, what the Reagan revolution created is today’s finance driven, debtor economy, where economic power does not have to work very hard to find lucrative rent-seeking opportunities. And economic power certainly is not going to be forced by anybody to work for the common good.
Reagan was brilliantly successful, probably beyond his own ambitions, in freeing economic wealth from the shackles on its power.

#10 Comment By PL On February 3, 2014 @ 11:55 am

Why does this author treat banning hard drugs as if it’s self evidently misguided? It’s not, and treating addiction as a subset of “liberty” is moronic.

#11 Comment By steve in ohio On February 3, 2014 @ 12:49 pm

Great analysis. While Reagan is my favorite President, he was not–like any human being–infallible. This is one of the few objective summaries of the good and the bad. As someone who often invoked Truman and FDR, I wonder if would be tempted to return to the party of his youth were he still with us today. The current GOP with its warmongering and disrespect of civil liberties would cause him to squirm.

I hope you write an analysis of Eisenhower at some point. Here in Ohio some of us are still upset he kept Taft out of the White House. Nevertheless, the 50’s were a great decade and conservative leaders like Goldwater and Buckley later supported men much less conservative than Ike. Although the military industrial establishment put him in power, he refused–most of the time–to do their bidding and warned us of its power upon leaving the presidency.

#12 Comment By simon94022 On February 3, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

McKinley was seen by history as a white man’s burden imperialist who was all for business at the expense of the working man. Teddy Roosevelt was too progressive and abandoned the GOP and scuttled the 2nd term aspirations of the ineffectual William Howard Taft. Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were seen as failures. Eisenhower, though a WWII icon, failed to move us forward.

Well this might be a plausible analysis if by “seen by history” you mean “seen by left wing historians”.

You don’t get to choose your opponents, and McKinley’s opponent in both 1896 and 1900 was an economic quack who proposed a policy of massive inflation in hopes of easing the debt burden on farmers, regardless of the larger cost to the country. The “working man” naturally did not want to see the value of his wages deliberately reduced, and therefore helped give McKinley landslide victories in the less rural and non-Southern states.

Teddy Roosevelt’s break from the GOP in 1912 had a lot more to do with his hefty ego than with “progressive” policies. Once that election was over, he slunked right back into the party (and might well have been its presidential nominee again in 1920 had he lived).

Harding may be the President whose record bears the weakest relationship to his reputation among academic historians. He presided over a stunning economic recovery, pulled America back from Woodrow Wilson’s planned long term entanglement in European and Middle Eastern affairs, restored the civil liberties of Eugene V. Debs and others on the Left who had opposed the First World War, and moved the Federal government back away from the vulgar racism and moralistic crusading of the Wilson years.

Yes, yes, Teapot Dome and the petty crook or two in Harding’s cabinet. And he begrudgingly enforced the Prohibition laws he inherited while ignoring them in his personal life. So what? All in all it was a pretty solid record for 2 and half years in office, and not at all surprising that he was deeply mourned by the public when he died.

Likewise, Coolidge presided over some of the greatest economic gains in American history, while reducing military expenditures and staying out of conflicts abroad. He also extended US citizenship to American Indians. The twenties were not just a riot of stock market speculation. This was the decade when ordinary middle class Americans first got telephones, electricity and automobiles. These were real, substantial gains that explain why both Harding and Coolidge were wildly popular in their day.

#13 Comment By Clint On February 3, 2014 @ 4:00 pm

Barack Obama,
“We’ve had a politics, frankly, you know, the entire Republican Party brand since Ronald Reagan has been ‘government’s the problem.’ And if you, day after day, week after week, election after election, are running on that platform and that permeates our culture and it’s picked up by, you know, ordinary citizens who grow skeptical, then it’s not surprising that over time, trust in government declines.”

Trust in government is declining rapidly under Obama.

#14 Comment By Frank Stain On February 3, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

‘Trust in government is declining rapidly under Obama.’

It’s not just government, Clint, and it’s not just under Obama. It is a clear, 40 year trend. The only major social institutions in the United States in which people have more confidence than 40 years are the police, and the military. Take a look
[11]

When you have a 40 year trend of rapidly diminishing trust in virtually all major institutions, it has nothing to do with a particular president or party. We are looking at a nation in serial moral, social, and economic decline.

#15 Comment By EarlyBird On February 3, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

Reagan is a hero because he was a man for his time. In ’80 there really was an argument for lowering taxes and regulation, set the market free to create a rising tide which would “lift all boats,” and to engage in a muscular foreign policy.

What is so very unconservative about how his acoyltes is that they’ve simply never changed course: it’s always 1980. It doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is Reaganims. No matter what is happening in the economy, whether boom or bust, while at war or at peace, their answer is lower taxes and regulations…It’s ridiculous.

#16 Comment By Clint On February 3, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

@Frank Stain :

Of course,under Reagan trust was 60 percent and over,while under Obama it has gone down from 66 percent to 49 percent.

“Fewer Americans Than Ever Trust Gov’t to Handle Problems ”

.gallup.com/poll/164393/fewer-americans-ever-trust-gov-handle-problems.aspx

#17 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 3, 2014 @ 7:14 pm

“The GOP/Right has encouraged the lowering of taxes, the conglomeration of industry, the exporting of jobs overseas, the deregulation of industry, and the accumulation of greater money in fewer hands.”

It is tiring refuting so much myth. This did not take place on a massive scale until the passage of NAFTA and the international formalization of the WTO. That took place during the Presidency and full support of William Jefferson Clinton in the 1990’s.

#18 Comment By Harry Huntington On February 3, 2014 @ 8:23 pm

Ronald Reagan was not a conservative. He was an unabashed FDR liberal. The problem is that the political spectrum in America had so radically shifted by the time that RR was elected that FDR would himself have been seen as slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.

RR did not support a single initiative that increased personal freedom. He presided when the CBS documentary “48 Hours on Crack Street” led the US government to engage in a reckless campaign to imprison all single young African American men who lived in cities. He presided over the years that gave birth to DWB.

He presided over changes to the tax code that empowered private equity to close American factories and outsource the middle class jobs in this country to China.

He presided over the closing of the American steel industry.

He presided over the introduction of regulatory policies that allowed predatory money center banks to force local American banks to close.

He presided over the introduction of pension policies that caused American business to cancel defined benefit pension plans and replace them with the modern Ponzi scheme called the 401K.

He presided over a US defense policy that continued to invest heavily in obsolete US aircraft carriers. The aircraft carrier (by the time Reagan was elected) was useless against the Soviet Union. It was only useful for attacking defenseless third world nations.

Ronald Reagan indisputably was President during an time of immense economic growth. Unfortunately those growth policies channeled all the money to the 1% and destroyed the middle class.

If it is the goal of a conservative to destroy the middle class, RR is the best of the conservatives.

#19 Comment By Jack On February 3, 2014 @ 10:01 pm

EarlyBird,

it’s always 1980

In more ways than one.

Reading some of the rhetoric on Iran being thrown around lately, I’d never have guessed that it has been a generation since the hostage crisis.

#20 Comment By Tim D. On February 3, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

Former President Clinton left a budget surplus of $236 billion to the Republican Party in 2000, which fell to $128 billion in 2001. By 2002, the federal government ran a budget deficit of $158 billion, which rose to $377 billion in 2003, and $413 billion in 2004. The deficit fell to $318 billion in 2005, $248 billion in 2006, and $161 billion in 2007, then shot up to $459 billion in 2008. And let’s not factor in the deficits that resulted from the 2008 financial crash.
Furthermore, government spending as a percentage of the economy fell during the Clinton presidency, starting at 21.4% and finishing up at about 18.2% of GDP in both 2000 and 2001. In 1993, Clinton’s first budget spent $1.4 trillion. The last budget he helped create spent $1.8 trillion.

With Obama, President Obama has spent about $3.5 trillion every year, averaging more than 24% of GDP. Nonetheless, this is in the context of having to deal with a financial crisis unseen since the 1930s. Tax cuts and slower-than-expected growth reduced revenues by $6.1 trillion and spending was $5.6 trillion higher, a turnaround of $11.7 trillion. Of this total, the C.B.O. attributes 72% to legislated tax cuts and spending increases, 27% to economic and technical factors. Of the latter, 56% occurred from 2009 to 2011. A good chunk of these numbers have their roots in Republicans abolishing PAYGO in 2002 and the Bush Tax Cuts that continued well into Obama’s first term. And that’s not factoring in how under Obama, US deficits are coming at levels unseen since the end of WWII.

Republicans are fiscally responsible? For the past 40+ years, Democrats have a better track record of public finances than Republicans do. The last Republican who was even remotely fiscally responsible was Dwight D. Eisenhower, but that was a different Republican Party that today’s incompetent, non-conservative Republican Party.

#21 Comment By Clint On February 4, 2014 @ 7:20 am

@ Harry Huntington :

Likewise,a recent study from the University of California, Berkeley,found 95% of income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top 1% of the earning population.

#22 Comment By EarlyBird On February 4, 2014 @ 11:35 am

PL asked:

“Why does this author treat banning hard drugs as if it’s self evidently misguided?…”

I will let Mr. Antle speak for himself, but for me it’s not the “banning” of hard drugs that is the problem, but the War on Drugs which is.

Treating drugs as a war which, as long as you kill or capture enough of your enemy you “win,” has meant the militarization and often corruption of our police forces, the empowering of the state to confiscate private property only vaguely associated with drugs (not just the mansions of king pins), the incarceration of tens of millions of citizens whose only crime has been to simply possess illegal drugs for personal use, not to mention the empowering of truly evil drug cartels by creating a super lucrative black market where only evil people dare tread.

To be against the War on Drugs is not to be pro-drugs. It does require us to accept the reality of drugs and drug addiction, and find ways to reduce the social harm associated with it, rather than increase those harms as the WOD has.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 4, 2014 @ 6:55 pm

“Former President Clinton left a budget surplus of $236 billion to the Republican Party in 2000, which fell to $128 billion in 2001. By 2002, the federal government ran a budget deficit of $158 billion, which rose to $377 billion in 2003, and $413 billion in 2004. The deficit fell to $318 billion in 2005, $248 billion in 2006, and $161 billion in 2007, then shot up to $459 billion in 2008. And let’s not factor in the deficits that resulted from the 2008 financial crash.”

if you go back and look at those numbers you will discover that there was no surplus – just fuzzy accounting. Less than two years in even prior to 9/11, Pres. Bush’s admin was scrambling to figure the actual budget minus projected gains — based on derivative formulas containing a lot of if factors.

#24 Comment By From China On February 4, 2014 @ 11:38 pm

> In the wake of the public mourning of Ronald Reagan, our 40th President of the United States, his supporters made certain claims. One of these claims was that he was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yeah – that one never fails to crack me up.

Seriously: I was always thinking an utterly retarded economic theroy, some dumb delusions about the “New Man” and general useless mumbo-jumbo that “Communism” as a system adds up to was responsible for the downfall of the Soviet Union. Well … actually for anyone who embraces this stunted ideology just long enough.

Always glad when someone “educates” me it was actually some conservative superman.

#25 Comment By EarlyBird On February 5, 2014 @ 11:57 am

From China:

No doubt “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War,” as if he did so single-handedly, is ridiculously simplistic. He was one in a long line of anti-communists who fought the USSR for 50 years.

But he must get credit for speeding up the ultimate collapse of the unsustainable Soviet system. By ’80, many Western leaders were exhausted by the confrontation and were more than willing to live with the USSR. Reagan was regularly pilloried as a “war monger! for his aggressive posture, which was not an easy one to take with European allies.

We (and the Soviet’s victims) could have easily had to endure the USSR for another 10+ years had Reagan not forced the Soviets to shovel and more and more of their dwindling resources into the arms race and into shoring up their footholds in the Third World.

Reagan may not have “won” the Cold War, but he certainly played a key role in its ultimate end.

#26 Comment By Richard Wagner On February 5, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

I think what we really need to remember about Reagan, is that while he was a great president in so many ways, national debt and endless government growth is the biggest present day concern of American conservatives. On that front, Reagan performed poorly. He may have restrained domestic spending growth, but that was only after astronomical growth during the “Great Society” and thereafter. And overall government spending increased substantially. On debt, say what you will about Carter, but in 4 years he did significantly reduce the deficit, even facing a resistant Congress including the ranks of his own party, and was very close to a balanced budget. By the end of the Reagan era, our economy was soaring, the Soviets were all but defeated, inflation was back under control, but it came at a hefty price – the worst national debt since the end of WWII. I think conservatives should look more to Eisenhower’s legacy now. Remember Reagan well, but we do not face a Soviet-style foe anymore. We need fiscal responsibility, foreign policy restraint, and a leader we can respect, while not romanticizing.

#27 Comment By Sam Bufalini On February 5, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

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.
Nuanced conservative thought is what keeps a lefty like me coming back to this site.

#28 Comment By Fran Macadam On February 6, 2014 @ 8:23 am

“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.”

Private monopoly power certainly can’t be trusted, either. It’s profoundly hostile to democratic accountability; hence its preference for hapless offshore workers and dealing mano-a-mano, strongman corporate chieftain to communist tyrant, both in exploitation mode.

Will private corporations limit government?

It is a proven fact, right before our eyes, that instead they will capture it and make of it their own creature, doing their bidding – against the best interests of the majority, making it ever more powerful in carrying out their interests and ever less powerful carrying out our own, those of the average American.

The only hope for restraining monopoly corporate power with its immense oligarchic wealth is democratic accountability.

Now how else could you get that, except through “a government for the people, of the people, by the people?”

Since there is no other way for people to be politically empowered except through democratic self-government, just who is really against democracy?

#29 Comment By Frank Stain On February 6, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

‘The only hope for restraining monopoly corporate power with its immense oligarchic wealth is democratic accountability.’

Amen, Fran. This is why so much energy is spent trying to convince people that the point of politics is to prevent the exercise of collective, democratic power.

#30 Comment By Matthew On February 6, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

“…non-defense discretionary spending actually fell in his first term and barely budged in his second”

That is pretty gigantic caveat. Reagan spent our money like a drunken sailor, he just did it on the things he liked, just like every other president tries to do. You can’t just say “if you take out this spending spree then he didn’t spend that much!”

As long as my wife is allowed to not count what she spent on shoes, those shopping trips were actually pretty restrained!

#31 Comment By J.D. On February 6, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

One thing that isn’t often mentioned — the Reagan administration vastly expanded the power of the presidency, using executive orders and signing statements to shape the law in a virtually unprecedented manner. Reagan’s team also granted sweeping powers to the NSA and the CIA and used the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers. No one paid much attention to any of this at the time, but it bears looking into.

#32 Comment By philadelphialawyer On February 6, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

From the article:

“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.'”

I agree with Fran Macadam. The notion that human beings cannot be trusted with too much power actually argues in favor of more government, not less. Human beings in government office are constrained by elections, by checks and balances, by the possibility of impeachment or other removal from office, by judicial review, by separation of powers, by a free press, and by other means. Human beings with vast monopoly powers and wealth are not restrained by much of anything. And certainly nothing if not the government.

The notion that the government should not have too much power because human beings cannot be trusted with power doesn’t follow at all. Perhaps Derbyshire is right when it comes to the government’s ability to “improve” human beings. But that hardly means it is incapable of providing the means of checking and restraining the power of wealthy and powerful human beings. I don’t need to have Koch, Soros, Gates, Murdoch, and so on “improved,” only kept from running the joint. And that is possible while still restraining the power of individual human beings in government itself.

#33 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 6, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

“The only hope for restraining monopoly corporate power with its immense oligarchic wealth is democratic accountability.”

Fine chatter, but are you willing to support policies that deny elected officials from participating in or owning the very corporations they are responsible for holding accountable.

Unless measures that extreme are advanced — any hope of restraint is probably fruitless. Campaign finance reform — are corporations really persons and as such what are the limits of their freedom of speech via dollars spent.

Just what is the constitutional article or clause that gives the government the power to restrain the wealthy? Seems arbitrary

#34 Comment By Victor Tiffany On February 7, 2014 @ 2:46 pm

I just read “7 Things Republicans Would Be Shocked To Learn About Ronald Reagan.” In the current climate, Gov. Reagan wouldn’t even win the nomination.

[12]

#35 Comment By philadelphialawyer On February 8, 2014 @ 2:36 am

EC:

“Just what is the constitutional article or clause that gives the government the power to restrain the wealthy? Seems arbitrary.”

Restrain them how? I think restraint should come in the form of regulation and taxes, not criminal laws, per se. For the Fed, that means the commerce clause, the income tax amendment and the tax and spend for the general welfare clause. I would add the clause giving Congress power over Federal elections as well.

At the State level, the police powers, including the power to regulate generally and to tax wealth (including intangible wealth), not just income, make the task even easier.

#36 Comment By Sean Scallon On February 8, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

The whole optimist/pessimist conundrum has bedeviled conservatives and those on the Right (the ideologues) since Reagan left the scene and will continue to do so. Because while it may be acceptable to the ideology that man is a fallen being, it is absolute political poison to say so on the campaign stump, as Barry Goldwater found out and as Mitt Romney found out in his “Nation of Moochers” speech the hard way. His father would have never spoken like that nor would have he even a decade ago. By trying to match his rhetoric to what the party’s base and financiers were thinking and saying only made Romney look fit charicature the Democrats created for him, that they’ve created for every Republican since Herbert Hoover: The Party of the Rich.

Reagan’s fans often forget Reagan worked in radio during the early part of the Depression and thus could hear Roosevelt’s fire-side chats and realized how they uplifted the nation and bound it together, not scold it. Thus Reagan voted for FDR four times and probably Truman too I would imagine.

Reagan also benefited from the fact that liberals and many on the Left lost a lot of the confidence in the country and in their ideas during the late 1970s and 80s. In a sense he got lucky. Since Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech, he was put in the position of being the optimist, not the traditional conservative scold. Democrats may thought it otherwise but this was no Goldwater they were running against in 1980, this was a conservative FDR and he never lost site of that. Not only that but like the early 1930s, Reagan, like FDR, had a crisis (stagflation, the Cold War) to set his policies against and succeed against as well.

That’s why there hasn’t been another Reagan to come along, because no perfect storm has come along for a Right or conservative politician to take advantage of in the manner he did. But one thing is clear, whoever tries for that mantle, had better accept the country and the times as they are rather than how they wish it to be to have a credible chance of winning first and foremost outside of a Red State or gerrymandered district or mid-term election.

#37 Comment By Sean Scallon On February 8, 2014 @ 2:24 pm

I was going to also say the success of conservative parties in the U.S. and Europe from the middle to the end of the 20th Century was the transformation of them from parties that were perceived to benefit the well-to-do and the aristocracy to parties that were of benefit to a broader middle class which also included the working class. Reagan and Thatcher were a big part of this transformation and perhaps to a lesser extent Nixon, Eisenhower and Heath and Powell were too.

#38 Comment By Mark On February 8, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

“Reagan is arguably the only conservative president since World War II, though I’d make a case for Eisenhower.”

Make that fiscally conservative, and Eisenhower walks away with the title.