Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 3, 2011

THE BENEFITS OF HIGHLY-MOTIVATED PUBLICISTS.... Given the lavish celebrations planned in honor of Ronald Reagan's 100th birthday, Paul Waldman reminds that "myths abound" when it comes to the 40th president. In particular, Paul noted Reagan's poll numbers.

Then there's the myth that Reagan was stunningly popular, when in fact his approval ratings were middling -- his average approval of 52.8 percent puts him ahead of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, but behind Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon Johnson, among others.

Kevin Drum wasn't buying it.

Still, when Paul Waldman suggests that Reagan's popularity is a myth too, I think he takes a step too far. Reagan is pretty popular! With the exception of our weird ongoing love affair with John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton are routinely chosen in polls as the most popular postwar presidents. Likewise, Reagan and Clinton were basically tied for the highest approval rating when they left office.

Oddly enough, both cited the exact same Gallup data to draw different conclusions.

Though they disagree, I find myself agreeing with both Paul and Kevin. The myth among Republicans is that Americans simply adored Reagan. That's really not the case -- at this point in his presidency, Reagan was less popular than Obama is now, and by the time his second term was up, Reagan enjoyed fairly broad support, but not as high as Clinton's, and nothing close to the perceptions of his adoring fans.

Let's put it this way -- when Clinton ran against the Reagan legacy in 1992, no one found that odd, and it certainly didn't stand in the way of a major Democratic victory.

That said, Kevin's right about Reagan's current standing. Indeed, he's far more popular now than he was when he was actually president.

And that, to me, is actually the more interesting area of exploration. Reagan is unique in modern political history, because he's the only former chief executive to have an aggressive, well-financed, highly-motivated public-relations campaign work on his reputation after leaving office. Generally, presidents are either remembered fondly or they're not. Their public stature either improves or doesn't.

With Reagan, Republicans weren't willing to take any chances -- Americans might not remember Reagan fondly, so GOP activists sought to make sure we remembered him the "right" way. It gave birth to the creepy Reagan Legacy Project, pressuring officials nationwide to name buildings, highways, schools, etc. after the former president. It's gotten to the point that the Republican National Committee has quite literally referred to him as Ronaldus Magnus.

It's silly to argue that Reagan's stature has gone down over the years; it clearly hasn't. But I'd argue his reputation has improved because Republicans have manufactured a p.r. campaign that has worked wonders. A lot of Reagan's fans claim to love the former president for reasons that bear no resemblance to the man's record, and those same fans seemed utterly shocked when confronted with details of his presidency -- such as his tax increases -- that they prefer to pretend didn't happen.

And why did the party bother? Because, oddly enough, Republicans have very few heroes to choose from. Think about it -- over the last 146 years, exactly how many GOP presidents do Republican activists actually like? There's Reagan, and there's no one else.

Dems have a more diversified list, ranging from Jefferson to Jackson, Roosevelt to Truman, JFK to Clinton, and maybe someday, Obama.

Reagan, conversely, gets all the love, because his party isn't proud of anyone else except Lincoln. So, sure, he's popular now, but let's not overlook the benefits of highly-motivated publicists.

Steve Benen 3:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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There's the first Republican president, Lincoln, but he, you know, freed the slaves, which is a very un-modern-Republican thing to do.

Posted by: anandine on February 3, 2011 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

Creepy indeed. Perhaps the plan is to run a genetic clone in 2012.

Posted by: robert on February 3, 2011 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

Manufactured. Has no real meaning.

Posted by: Bob M on February 3, 2011 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

They love Hoover, but don't want to make it public?

Posted by: Ian A on February 3, 2011 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

The right's ability to elevate(with the feckless media's help)one of their own is impressive.

We even see some of that today with people like Chris Christie and Paul Ryan.

Posted by: Holmes on February 3, 2011 at 4:01 PM | PERMALINK

Teddy was a Republican, but he had even less in common with Ronald Minimus, than Ronald had to today's piratical crew.

One Party, two completely different world views.

But then, that can also be said about the Democrats, who were different in the beginning of the last century - but nowhere near the extreme as the RepubliKLANS.

Ronald Reagan's Legacy: Mourning in America.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on February 3, 2011 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

What about "their" Roosevelt, Teddy? Though admittedly not many of his positions would find resonance amongst the rabid right today.

Posted by: Bernard HP Gilroy on February 3, 2011 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

The publicists who are polishing RayGun's legacy are certainly one factor. The other, however, is the fact that the hapless, rudderless, idea- and fact-free republicans are badly in need of a "hero". They are so desperate that they have to reach this far back in history in their attempt and pretend that neither Poppy Bu$h nor GDumbya were actually ever republican presidents.

Of course, this also has the advantage of being so long ago that they can make up anything they want to about Ronnie and a lot of people will actually swallow it.

Posted by: Bo on February 3, 2011 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

Ironically enough, Reagan would be considered a bleeding heart liberal to today's conservatives.

I'd maybe throw Eisenhower into the mix as a fondly remembered republican, but again, according to right wing standards today, he is nothing but a socialist commie pinko, as his federal highway system was the largest public works program besides the war effort in American history.

Posted by: citizen_pain on February 3, 2011 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

Eisenhower would seem to be a good candidate but he said too many sane things about the military-industrial complex, how opposing Social Security was stupid, etc.

Posted by: JD on February 3, 2011 at 4:06 PM | PERMALINK

And the reason they talk about Lincoln and not Teddy Roosevelt is that everyone agrees Lincoln was great, but he's also far enough in the past that they can gloss over talking about all the stuff that the neo-Confederates who have taken over the GOP wouldn't like.

(I suspect they also don't talk much about Roosevelt because they'd have to keep explaining that they don't mean FDR, and explaining is a death knell for purely emotional appeals like Reagan-worship.)

Posted by: Redshift on February 3, 2011 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

I like Ike, but then again, I'm not a Republican.

Posted by: fostert on February 3, 2011 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Reagan's "optimism" is what makes such an appealing subject of hagiography. Usually, conservatives are fairly abhorrent in terms of their personalities. When they tell you they want to unshackle you from the government, you know what they really mean. With Reagan, you actually thought you were going to get a sinecure at the Heritage Foundation, or at least, a shopping trip with Betsy Bloomingdale. Of course, Reagan's personality was ultimately inhumane and heartless. To look at Ron Reagan explicate his cipher of a father is both touching and painful. But for a nation bereft of real roots and real communities, Reagan substituted as a theme park of nostalgic flapdoodle. He was mostly a rich man wanting to be richer, and for America, that was enough.

Posted by: walt on February 3, 2011 at 4:14 PM | PERMALINK

The GOP won't mention Ike because he railed against the "military-industrial complex" and wasn't sufficiently conservative. They are all but trashing Teddy R with gleeful abandon because of his *gasp!* progressive policies.

When you butcher the two best presidents your party has had in the last 100+ years, you better find one to turn into a saint.

Posted by: Dave on February 3, 2011 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking of Republican heroes, and "their" Roosevelt, I happened on a couple of volumes in the bookstore the other day that (from the jacket blurbs) engage in some pretty neocon-centric Teabaggist character assassination of TR. Apparently he was too globalist for their tastes, and they've begun looking for reasons to denounce him as "not a TRUE Republican" a la Eisenhower.

Posted by: boatboy_srq on February 3, 2011 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Its not just going to be the centennial that will bring out the cult of personality. It will be the Republican 2012 primaries, and the debates. Expect alot of full-throated humping of the ghost. Whick I'm sure will make little sense to those too young to have many memories of Reagan. Which is basically everyone under the age of 42 or so. And then the Rs will wonder why they continue to lose the youth vote.

Posted by: John Dillinger on February 3, 2011 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

"except Lincoln"

That is a very debatable statement. I never hear Southern Republicans speak fondly of Lincoln.

Arkansas Republicans just elected this man to the State Legislature:

Loy Mauch

From the Arkansas Times, 11 NOV 2010:


For seven years, Mauch was the commander of James M. Keller Camp 648 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He stepped down as commander last year. In 2004, angered by the city of Hot Springs' refusal to remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln displayed in the Hot Springs Civic and Convention Center, the Keller Camp hosted a conference in Hot Springs called "Seminar on Abraham Lincoln — Truth vs. Myth," with a keynote address called "Homage to John Wilkes Booth."

Mauch said that he believes Lincoln didn't follow the Constitution. Of the statue of Lincoln in the convention center, Mauch said: "I didn't think it had any place down in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He wasn't friendly to Arkansas. He didn't have anything to do with Arkansas. Nobody in Arkansas voted for him."

Posted by: arkie on February 3, 2011 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK

If only Hoover'd had this kind of PR...

Posted by: Todd for VT House on February 3, 2011 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Benen is correct that the Reagan love is manufactured. That being said, he is way off base to suggest that the only reason for it is that "his party isn't proud of anyone else except Lincoln."

The truth is that the Reagan mythologizing pays real-world dividends in terms of public policy. The greatest achievement of the Reagan mythologizing has been the swaying of the perceptions of the Democratic establishment and the beltway media. This was absolutely one of the purposes of the legacy project. Reagan and his Republican disciples understood the importance of narrative themes in politics far more than the Democrats ever have.

You know when Barack Obama, a Democratic president, feels more comfortable singing the praises of Ronald Reagan than F.D.R. that the p.r. campaign has hit it out of the park.

Posted by: square1 on February 3, 2011 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

Don't forget -- Eisenhower was also the president of a [gasp] Ivy League university, and he didn't even try to shut it down!

Posted by: ahoy polloi on February 3, 2011 at 4:35 PM | PERMALINK

If today's GOP weren't full of crackpots, then they'd be justifiably proud of Eisenhower. The same can also be said about Teddy Roosevelt and Taft (who was a better Chief Justice than President).

Posted by: Eisbaer on February 3, 2011 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

I've seen this in the high school history classes I teach - many of the kids (and especially the ones whose parents watch Fox News) will tell you that Reagan was the president who singlehandedly won the Cold War (they're never able to say exactly how, but it apparently had something to do with manfully shouting "tear down this wall!" at the Russkies.) I've watched this nasty little untruth develop over the past few years, to the point where I think it's becoming as fixed in our collective memory as any actual fact. (But then, wasn't it St. Ronnie himself who once called facts "stupid things?")

Posted by: Severian on February 3, 2011 at 4:37 PM | PERMALINK

...and Lincoln is less popular in the south than Jeff Davis.

Seriously, find me a conservative Republican southerner with a picture of Lincoln on his wall. Ain't happenin'.

The Southern strategy netted the GOP all those dixiexcrats who hated Lincoln as the foreign invader.

Posted by: Newton Whale on February 3, 2011 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

A good PR staff can overcome any real or perceived shortcomings. God, for example, has a worldwide positive rating in the 90's. . .

Posted by: DAY on February 3, 2011 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

There is Calvin Coolege who surely must be a hero, as his rep is not doing much and letting the party rage on.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on February 3, 2011 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Worth remembering that Lincoln fought the theory that States could actually secede from the Union while today's Republicans try to pass state nullification bills.

Posted by: Camus on February 3, 2011 at 4:40 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are NOT fond of Lincoln. He is simply their cover story, their convenient dodge whenever racial issues come up. Then they call themselves the "Party of Lincoln". He's a get out of jail free card, like Maine Gov. Paul LePage's adopted black son whose picture he pulled out after saying the NAACP could "Kiss is butt."

Really, the modern Republican party truly is the "Party of Reagan", specifically the Reagen of the racist dog whistle attacks, like the "States rights" campaign opener in the historically telling location of Philadelphia, Mississippi or all the talk of welfare queens.

Reagan may well not have been a racist in his personal life, but he was completely willing to make not so subtle appeals to racism to advance his political career. Personally, I find this far more objectionable than someone who simply hates someone else because of the color of their skin.

Posted by: Fides on February 3, 2011 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

and let's not forget the truly important birthday on sunday: bob marley's 66th.

Posted by: mellowjohn on February 3, 2011 at 6:30 PM | PERMALINK

What's weird here is that there are a few Republican Presidents who the GOP could be proud of, Eisenhower and T. Roosevelt come to mind, but they reject them as being ideologically impure. If they were to take a cold hard look at the Reagan years, they would probably come up with the same conclusions about Reagan if it weren't for the concerted public relations efforts. It is a sign of just how divorced from reality that GOP has become and how far out of the mainstream they are. They are living entirely on public relations now and if they are ever able to effectively wield power again, they will be voted out so quickly it will make your head swim.

Posted by: majun on February 3, 2011 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

It's more a bunch of old crocks recalling with nostalgia the time when they were young and hot and went to Washington, and trying to keep that moment alive. After the likes of Grover Norquist pass on, Reagan will be about as present in the public memory as William McKinley.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on February 3, 2011 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

I've always thought Republicans worship Reagan mainly because he won 49 states in being re-elected. They can use that as a subtle PR tool to remind everyone: "See, we're really popular and dominant! Americans love us!" It's about making people forget they're a$$holes, similar to Bush's more direct "Compassionate Conservative" PR.

Posted by: Jack H. on February 4, 2011 at 12:33 AM | PERMALINK

I think this is an excellent post. I think another point is that the Republican PR machine is much more generously financed than the Democratic pr machine. The Democrats don't have semi-respectable hives of hacks like the AEI, Heritage, Fox News, and Cato. These are all places which fire people (except for Norman Ornstein) who don't follow the institutions line, which just happens to be the Republican party line.

Honest people can work there if they happen by coincidence to agree with The Party. But relying on coincidence is risky. Many of them have recently been fired.

There just isn't any comparison with leftist or liberal or Democratic leaning places. There people who think Kennedy was a jerk say so, and people who defend Johnson aren't fired.

I too tried to think of other Republican Presidents whe Republicans like. I would add maybe two more -- Eisenhower and T Roosevelt.

I guess T Roosevelt is delicate for two reasons -- he was a loud and proud imperialist and celebrating him makes it hard to raise money from "malefactors of great wealth." I think the main problem is the second.

Also Eisenhower. Now he was an old fogey even when he was President. The 50s are so longgg ago. Also the 90% top marginal income tax rate and he is already taken by Rubinites (well not all Rubinites -- I am a Rubinite and I don't think highly of Eisenhower).

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on February 4, 2011 at 2:24 AM | PERMALINK

As far as the GOP is concerned, there is no greater hero than ol' Joe McCarthy.

Posted by: Gridlock on February 4, 2011 at 5:03 AM | PERMALINK



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