Ronald Reagan has become somewhat of a patron saint to conservatives. Fred Barnes argues here that many people (both conservative and liberal) are actively revising history to remember the Reagan years quite differently than what they really were. Barnes says, “Reagan was, I believe, one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century, but many of the things that both liberals and conservatives now credit to his presidency simply never were.”
Liberals, contends Barnes, make believe that the Reagan years “were a golden idyll of collaboration between congressional Democrats and a not-so-conservative president.” Conservatives, Barnes opines, have created the myth of “Reagan as the relentless swashbuckler against spending.”
While admitting Reagan’s strong principles, in reality, says Barnes, “Reagan compromised, as even the most conservative politicians often do, to save his political strength for what mattered most--defeating the Soviet empire and keeping taxes low.” Barnes’ main thesis is that today’s distorted caricature of Reagan does a disservice to President Bush, because it creates unrealistic expectations for everyone.
I have mulled over Barnes’ words for a couple of weeks now, wondering what it was about Regan that makes conservatives consider him to be a great president and a great conservative. It’s not just the passage of time, and it’s not simply a post-mortem honor. No, I believe there’s something deeper.
Then something occurred to me while reading this article by Andrew E. Busch, who is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. Busch says that for years leading up to his presidency and throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan “made a persistent argument” about the virtues of “limited constitutional government.” While Regan realistically made compromises with a Democratic congress, no one doubted Reagan’s personal devotion to principles of limited government.
Reagan’s drumbeat on this topic effectively gained a generation of converts. Busch says that “today's 30-44 year-olds who came of age during his presidency are some of America's most Republican-leaning voters.”
Reagan, argues Busch, also did a fantastic job of balancing and coordinating the twin messages of social conservatism and economic conservatism, and that he also won over “nationalistic foreign policy hawks” with his relentless focus on security and the Cold War.
Busch notes that there is a lot of overlap between the three groups that support these issues: social conservatives, economic conservatives, and national security conservatives. Reagan brought these three groups together in a common cause and intertwined the messages that appeal to them. Busch suggests that the converts of the Reagan years have been the energy behind the Republican Party since those days. These people remember, and they believe in the vision Reagan articulated.
I believe this is the reason Ronald Reagan is so revered by conservatives today. It’s not that everything he did was staunchly conservative. He was a politician that made compromises. But he believed in an overall conservative vision. He articulated a balanced version of this vision extremely well, and he worked within realistic limits to implement as much of this vision as possible.
The people that believed in the Reagan vision revere him because he was the guy that articulated this vision and actually tried to do something about it. He wasn't able to turn our government into a conservative institution, but to these people, his presidency marked a major shift in the right direction.