Rest assured that the radical reworking of history that America witnessed in the hours after Ronald Reagan died Saturday at age 93 will be temporary. While the over-the-top media coverage and official commentary regarding the 40th President’s passing has made him out to be such a noble figure that otherwise rational people have been heard to suggest that Reagan was the greatest president of the twentieth century, it will not take long for a balancing to begin. In short order, the assessments of Reagan the man, and of his tenure in the Oval Office, will be tempered.
Then, conservatives and liberals will be free to consider ths ideologically-driven–and misguided–President’s record with eyes wide open.
For now, however, realism is in short supply–much to the detriment of not just of the historical record but of Reagan’s memory.
All of a sudden, the man who redirected tens of billions of dollars away from domestic needs to build up the largest nuclear arsenel on the planet, ran up record deficits, saw members of his Administration investigated and indicted at a staggering rate and, himself, came close to being impeached for allowing aides to create a shadow government that peddled weapons to sworn enemies of the United States and used the profits to fund illegal wars in Central America was remade as a statesman who restored dignity and direction to his country.
While no one should begrudge Reagan’s admirers this opportunity to replay those “morning in America” commercials that were deployed with such success during the last of their man’s four runs for the presidency, it is a bit embarrassing to watch pundits and pols who know better embracing the spin.
The problem with all this hero worship is that the spin underestimates and mischaracterizes Reagan. It reduces a complex and controversial man to a blurry icon with few of the rough edges that made him one of the most remarkable political figures of his time.
That he was remarkable does not mean that he was right. Most of what Reagan did during two terms as governor of California and two terms as president can most charitably be described as “misguided.” Aside from his support for abortion rights during his governorship, and his opposition to anti-gay initiatives in California during the late 1970s, Reagan displayed an amazing ability to place himself on the wrong side of the issues–and of history.
Yet, there is something that liberals can–and should–learn from Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling–as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale’s ideas were significantly more popular–they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, “Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands.” And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.
Reagan connected as a conservative by displaying an optimism about his ideology and its potential that most right-leaning politicians before him had lacked. And that optimism transformed the conservative movement from a petty circle of grumbling cynics who believed that every glass was half empty–and probably poisoned–into energetic and, dare it be said, happy warriors on behalf of tax cuts, ever-more-expensive weapons systems, corporate welfare, privatization, deregulation and the blurring of lines between church and state.
In the years after Republican right-winger Barry Goldwater’s landslide loss of the 1964 presidential election, many conservatives had doubts about whether they would ever be able to peddle their programs successfully. But Reagan did not doubt. He believed. And his faith was infectious. It helped him beat a liberal Democratic governor of California in 1966 and a moderate Democratic president in 1980. And it permitted a new generation of conservatives to feel they were part of a movement with not just principles but with a future.
As that movement grasped its future, during Reagan’s presidency and in its aftermath, liberals–particularly those working within the constraints of the Democratic Party–began to be the ones who entertained doubts. Many Democrats gave up altogether on the liberal values that had carried that party to its greatest successes, and moved to the right. It was a tragic error, for which the Democratic party continues to pay.
The lesson to be learned from Reagan is not an ideological one. His ideology was wrong for America and wrong for the world–something even Reagan sometimes recognized, as when he backed away from the most extreme tenets of the conservative agenda to, for instance, defend Social Security, and when he finally agreed, at the behest of Margaret Thatcher, to negotiate with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Rather, the lesson to be learned from Reagan is a stylistic one. He loved preaching his conservative doctrines. And he loved battling with liberals at the ballot box, at the debate podium and in the Capitol. He was a conservative first, a Republican second. He showed no respect for party decorum, challenging a sitting Republican president–Gerald Ford–who he felt was too moderate. And he was willing to lose on principle, whether in that 1976 nomination fight with Ford or, during his presidential terms, in fights with Congress over tax policy, foreign affairs or nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just imagine if Bill Clinton had been as committed to advancing an activist liberal ideology as Reagan was to his conservative agenda. America might have a national health care plan today. Labor law reform could have been a reality, rather than an empty promise. The United States would certainly have a more progressive judiciary. And here’s another notion: If Clinton or Al Gore had put as much energy and enthusiasm into educating Americans about and promoting a liberal agenda as Reagan did for his conservative ideals, the United States would today have a different Congress and president.
This willingness to fight so fearlessly and forcefully for his political faith is what made the 40th president remarkable. It is what inspired conservatives. And it is the one thing that liberals would do well to learn from Ronald Reagan.