Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 10, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE REAGAN CULT....If ABC News had a "Word of the Week" feature, this week's winner would surely be hagiography. The conservative canonization of Ronald Reagan is in full swing and the effusiveness of the praise being sent in his direction is unlike anything we've seen for half a century from either Democrats or Republicans.

Why Reagan? What's so different about him? Conservatives mostly talk about his accomplishments as president, but I don't think that really accounts for their hero worship of him. Consider:

  • The economy. Reagan is famous for lowering taxes in 1981, but the fact is that he also raised taxes several times after that. Stagflation? Inflation was lowered mostly due to Paul Volcker's tight money policies at the Fed not to mention the lack of further oil shocks after 1979 and the unemployment record of the 80s wasn't actually any better than the 70s. What's more, the Reagan expansion was pretty average compared to other postwar expansions.

    But he did lower taxes significantly for the first time in 20 years. And the economy did boom.

  • Winning the Cold War. Yes, he doubled defense spending, but a lot of it was for weapons systems like the MX missile, the Trident submarine, and the stealth program, that were started by his predecessors. He talked about strength, but hightailed it out of Beirut the first time he got his nose bloodied. He obsessed over Central America, but largely ignored the far more important campaign in Afghanistan until he was forced to during his second term. And in 1987 he signed an idealistic and far-reaching arms control agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev that was derided by many of his conservative advisors.

    But he did preside over an unprecedented defense buildup, and the Berlin Wall did fall in 1989.

  • Social conservatism. Yes, he appointed Antonin Scalia and tried to appoint Robert Bork, but he also appointed Sandra Day O'Connor and (when the Bork nomination failed) Anthony Kennedy, who are considered generally centrist. He pandered to the Christian Right, but rather famously did little to actually accomodate them. He promised to reduce the size of government, but actually grew federal spending and federal employment faster than Bill Clinton.

    But he did appoint lots of conservative judges and he did veto lots of spending bills (even if he knew perfectly well his vetos would be overridden).

So again: why Reagan? My point is decidedly not to pretend that Reagan had no substantive accomplishments, nor to pretend that he was really a pragmatist or a moderate rather than a true conservative. Rather, it's to figure out why a president with a clearly mixed conservative record is so deified by conservatives. After all, they don't treat Eisenhower the same way.

The answer, I think, lies not so much in what he did as in what he said. Although his record is mixed, his rhetoric never faltered and there's one thing about his presidency that I think is unquestionable: he changed the terms of the debate. Tax cuts, anti-communism, small government even if he didn't follow through on all of them consistently, he at least made them acceptable once again as serious political goals.

And this is surely why conservatives love him. In the same way that activist liberals fell for Howard Dean earlier this year because of his fiery speeches despite the fact that his actual record in Vermont was rather moderate conservatives love Reagan because he was the first president since 1930 to unapologetically promote conservative ideals. He told conservatives it was OK to be conservative, and even if he didn't always follow through on his principles that was enough. For perhaps the first time in a half century, conservatives felt like they didn't have to be embarrassed about who they were. It was finally! possible to be a conservative without being considered a John Birch Society loon.

In that sense, he really does deserve his place as a patron saint of conservatism. Although in many ways the country has continued to move steadily along a liberal path remarkably unchanged by his presidency, conservative ideas are a serious part of the political conversation in a way they weren't before Reagan.

That's why they love him, and I guess I don't blame them. Flaws and all, if a liberal version of Reagan came along, I'd probably fall in love too.

POSTSCRIPT: It's probably hopeless to point this out, but I'm not a Reagan fan and I'm not trying to excuse his many and varied faults. I'm just trying to get a handle on why conservatives love him so much despite his rather mixed record on the issues that are important to them. OK?

Kevin Drum 8:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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