Bust the Reagan Myth

Conservatives would do well to study their hero's actual history.

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Conservatives hold today's politicians to a standard that never existed.

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One of the more enjoyable aspects of any Republican nomination fight is watching presidential hopefuls jockey for position by engaging in a favorite conservative pastime: Reagan-mantling. At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, the Gipper was front and center, from Sen. Ted Cruz’s opening speech reminiscing about the Reagan Revolution to Sarah Palin’s closer heralding the former president as one of “the giants of our movement."

Attempts to claim the Reagan mantle spilled over to the Sunday shows when Cruz criticized Sen. Rand Paul, claiming his own saber-rattling foreign policy was far more Reaganesque than the Kentucky senator’s non-interventionist approach. On Monday Paul fired back with a timely history lesson. Reagan may have talked tough, Paul noted, but his reluctance to use military power kept him in constant conflict with the Republican hawks of his time. Though Reagan mythologists prefer to argue otherwise, the 40th president was more of a “speak loudly and carry a small stick” kind of leader.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Ted Cruz.]

Reagan mythbusting is good for the soul, so let’s tackle one more: Reagan as conservative demigod. To be sure, his sweeping victories in 1980 and 1984 were salve for the conservative soul. He was certainly easier for the right to rally around than Richard Nixon, the GOP president that preceded him. But his relationship with the conservative movement was nonetheless fraught, as activists chafed against the pragmatism required to govern the nation.

Conservative unease was apparent in the 1980 nomination fight. In the run-up to the election, conservatives were not solidly behind Reagan. After all, the former California governor was getting up there in years, and rising conservative star Phil Crane had thrown his hat in the ring. (Playing up his youth, Crane boasted that he was Reagan, only 20 years younger. Reagan quipped in reply: “That’s too bad, because twenty years ago I was a New Deal Democrat.”) But Crane’s campaign fizzled early on, and right-wing support consolidated behind Reagan, who went on to win the general election in a landslide.

The right cheered his victory, but the honeymoon period was short-lived. The greatest source of discontent was the New Right, the group of strategists who mobilized social conservatives in support of Reagan in 1980. The president was in office less than a month when Richard Viguerie, a principle leader of the New Right, began complaining loudly about the new administration's inattention. “I knew conservatives would get the short end of the stick,” Viguerie griped, “I just didn’t know it would be this short.” Eighteen months later the Conservative Digest, the primary publication of the New Right, devoted an entire issue to the question, “Has Reagan Deserted the Conservatives?” The magazine’s answer: a resounding yes. Favoring economic issues over social ones, Reagan had demonstrated to disappointed social conservatives that he was just another establishment politician.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Foreign policy was equally contentious. Conservative hawks criticized Reagan for not being aggressive enough in the fight against communism, calling him an “appeaser” and his Central America policy “pathetically incompetent.” Yet others on the right scored him for being too eager to intervene around the globe. Paul Harvey, though a fan of Reagan’s domestic agenda, believed the president was giving in to the same domino-theory thinking that sucked the U.S. into Vietnam. Replicating those mistakes in Central America, Harvey warned, could make Reagan “the first President ever to fall from a slip on a banana republic.” Like Rand Paul, he found broad intervention pointless. “It’s vain to talk about restoring democracy in countries that don’t even know the meaning of the word,” he said And like Paul, Harvey was branded an “isolationist” and “America-firster” for his views.

Throw in Reagan’s willingness to raise taxes and rack up deficits, and it’s easy to see why conservatives often opt for the Reagan myth over reality. But they would do well to study their history books. Doing so would allow them to stop holding candidates up to the impossible standard of a fantasy Reagan presidency, and start coming to terms with the compromise and pragmatism governing requires.