Democrats and Republicans Both Get Reagan Wrong

The former president would be shocked at how far right his Republican heirs have drifted intellectually.

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Was Ronald Reagan the triumphantly conservative statesman Republicans claim him to be?

Was he the well-intentioned but hapless failure liberals make him out to be, now as then?

Or, alternatively, was he a cryptocentrist Democrat whose Republican heirs have intellectually drifted further rightward than the man himself ever dreamed?

To varying degrees, I think all of the punditry surrounding the Reagan’s 100th birthday has gotten the Gipper wrong. The accepted record of his presidency is far from a model of true-blue, Goldwaterite rightism. Yet he was neither a failure nor a closet big-government Rooseveltian. [See photos of Ronald Reagan's life.]

He was a center-right pragmatist. He ignited the conservative base that propelled him to victory—and ignored that same base when it was politically necessary.

A paradigmatic example of the "triumphant conservative" case is found in author Steven Hayward’s piece for National Review. In it, Hayward attempts to wave away liberal revisionism in hackneyed Tom Wolfe fashion: “He raised taxes! He talked to the Soviets and reached arms agreements!” He argues further that “Reagan said after leaving office that his largest disappointment was not being able to control spending growth more effectively.”

Sure, and my biggest disappointments are not having tried harder in school and failing to get past page 25 of my novel.

In fact, Reagan did raise taxes, several times. And he did reach arms agreements with the Soviets—over the vociferous objections of both the Republican Party’s hardcore anticommunists and so-called realists such as Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and George H.W. Bush. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]

To my lights, such ideological dexterity isn’t proof of Reagan’s betrayal or secret embrace of this or that orthodoxy. It’s proof of the man’s prudence and shrewdness and statesmanship. Upper-bracket income tax rates before 1981 were at a level that even most Democrats would characterize as confiscatory; Social Security needed saving; and Gorbachev was a man with whom business could be done.

With nearly audible sighs of exasperation, Michael Kinsley argues that Reagan shouldn’t get credit for ending the “stagflation” of the 1970s, either: 

The “stagflation” of the late 1970s was two different phenomena. First came inflation, then came a vicious recession that wrung inflation out of the economy, but at a high price. The recession was purposely engineered by the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul Volcker. The real hero of this episode was Carter. He appointed Volcker, knowing what Volcker would do and what it would probably cost him politically.

Kinsley is right, as far as he goes. But then, doesn’t Reagan deserve credit also for nominating Alan Greenspan, who, despite self-admitted errors in recent years, superintended a long era of low-inflation growth? [See the 10 best cities to find a job.]

Liberals like Kinsley and Eugene Robinson enjoy, to no end, pointing out that Reagan did not make the federal government smaller—and that Bill Clinton and Al “Reinventing Government” Gore did. But government’s shrinking share of GDP in the ’90s was due in no small part to a military drawdown after the Cold War—the end of which even many critics grudgingly concede Reagan accelerated. [Read more stories on national security, terrorism, and the military.]

Alas, Kinsley is more than half-right about this: Reagan “made wanting smaller government and lower taxes a patriotic necessity for all politicians, on a level with motherhood, apple pie, and supporting the troops. In poli-sci terms, he shifted the paradigm.”

Since the Reagan era, our politics have suffered from a reality gap. Put another way, the way post-Reagan Republicans (and some Democrats) campaign and they way they govern is often wildly divergent. Liberal and conservative critics alike often point out that, by easing tax burdens but failing to slash services, Reagan made big government feel cheap.

In the wake of the Great Recession, that reality gap can no longer be papered over. May it, too, rest in peace.

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