In this tsunami of adoration leading up to the centennial of his birthday on Sunday, Ronald Reagan is touted as the model of Republican, and even tea party, virtue. But Reagan's acolytes may be misunderstanding the master's record.
Is the Reagan who's being recalled as a paragon of conservative rectitude the Reagan of reality? Was Reagan an unflinching, true-blue conservative? Or was he in fact something else — a pragmatic realist in both foreign and domestic policy and a leader, like most presidents, who committed mistakes and errors in judgment that can't be wished away?
Certainly Reagan faithfully adhered to GOP liturgy by bashing big government and spending. When it came to foreign affairs, he took the hardest of hard lines in a 1983 speech that dubbed the Soviet Union an "evil empire."
But early in his political career, as governor of California, Reagan displayed his pragmatic side, signing an abortion bill and agreeing to a $1 billion state tax hike. Similarly, as president, he paid lip service to ending abortion but never did anything about it. And he worked with congressional Democrats on a massive tax hike in 1982, thereby averting the worst effects of the supply-side deficit spending he had endorsed when he entered office the year before.
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Moreover, Reagan, the putative foe of big government, had accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars in debt by the end of his second term.
Nor did the Great Communicator display great fidelity to hard-line conservative principles when it came to foreign policy, especially in dealing with the Soviet Union. Instead, it was his conciliatory side that came to the fore.
Reagan placed a premium on alliances with Western Europe and tried to keep American troops out of foreign combat, including withdrawing them from Lebanon in 1983. He heeded his moderate advisers, not extreme voices from the far right. When the far right did get its way, as in the Iran-Contra affair — a debacle that almost brought down Reagan's presidency — it's not clear that he was cognizant of its illegal actions.
Nothing ended up infuriating the right more than Reagan's fear of the prospect of nuclear war. To the outrage of conservatives such as commentator George Will, he tried to cut a deal in 1987 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, that would have abolished nuclear weapons. He went on to sign the sweeping START I arms-control treaty with the Kremlin, slashing the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles. So much for Reagan the ideologue.
In fact, history may see in Reagan a great president, just not in the mold of his current boosters. His greatness rested precisely in his readiness to abandon his conservative principles when it made sense to do so. That's how he helped achieve the gains often ascribed to him: He delivered the knockout blow to communism by making common cause with the enemy. He protected national security by backing away from nuclear weapons.
In short, a bogus myth about Reagan has become far more precious to today's GOP than his actual record. Despite venerating Reagan, the party has moved to the right of him, suggesting that the federal government should be kneecapped and that a unilateralist, militaristic foreign policy would fulfill Reagan's legacy. Reagan, however, did not demonize his enemies, snub allies or try to destroy the federal government.
Reagan, in other words, couldn't be counted among contemporary Reaganites.