Ronald Reagan the Liberal; JFK the Conservative

The Republican Party’s nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, their most popular president in modern memory, has grown since he left office in 1989.

Thanks to his background as an actor, his ability to speak with humor, tell well-spun anecdotes (true or not) and literary-minded speechwriters like Peggy Noonan, Reagan was without question a “great communicator” that Republican leaders and candidates would do well to emulate.

In the popular imagination,  Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, at least in his fourth year (1980) was ineffectual in staying on top of crises. Double-digit inflation, an energy crisis, refugee crises, Iranian crisis — Carter seemed overwhelmed by the time voters went to the polls in November of 1980.

When Reagan came to power in 1981, he was much better at dominating events and giving a sense that he was in control, in charge, than Carter. He quickly proposed, and won from Congress, a huge tax cut to stimulate the economy. He survived an assassination attempt on March 31, 1981 with grace and humor. In August, he broke the air traffic controllers strike by firing 11,000 PATCO workers.

Despite numerous scandals, he maintained personal popularity and winning the designation “teflon-coated” by the media. That continued through his re-election campaign in 1984, and even into his negotiations with the Soviets in 1987.

But New York Times columnist Paul Krugman offers a healthy perspective on Reagan in a series of columns. He wrote that cronyism, abuse of power, catering to wealth and corporate interests were also part of the Reagan administration. “People whose ideology says that government is always the problem, never the solution, see no point in governing well. So they use political power to reward their friends, rather than find people who will actually do their jobs.”

Reagan “was lucky in his limitations,” Krugman theorizes. He had to govern in coalition with a Democratic Congress, which made him more accountable than Bush, who had a rubber stamp Republican Congress for much of his presidency. And the fact that there were still two superpowers “helped prevent the hubris, the delusions of grandeur, that led the George W. Bush administration to believe that a splendid little war in Iraq was just the thing to secure its position.”

In an earlier column, Krugman pointed out that Reagan was much more fiscally responsible than Bush. Reagan “followed his huge 1981 tax cut with two large tax increases. In fact, no peacetime president has raised taxes so much on so many people.” In sum, a broad consensus of the American people respected Ronald Reagan because he proved to be, on both foreign and domestic policy, pragmatic, showing a far greater sense of responsibility and far greater ideological flexibility than George W. Bush demonstrated.

10 Things Doctrinaire Conservatives Don’t Acknowledge About Ronald Reagan

The unrealistic nostalgia for Reagan has gone so far that “Today’s Republicans Might Not Nominate the Real Reagan,” McClatchy’s Washington Bureau points out. “They want to put his face on Mount Rushmore, but Republicans today are demanding such ideological purity that they might not even nominate Ronald Reagan for president if he were to run now,” Steve Thomma reports.

Reagan supported amnesty for three million undocumented workers. He signed the first pro-abortion law in the nation as governor of California. He raised taxes several times as governor and president. He embraced Keynesian economics and massive deficit spending. He trusted our arch-enemy, the “evil empire” enough to negotiate arms reduction.

Perhaps the Republican efforts to view Reagan with rose-colored glasses isn’t that different from Democrats’ idealization of John and Robert Kennedy, to view them as heroic liberals rather than (often) the pragmatic or risk-averse moderates that they actually were. Indeed, some of the Kennedys’ actions (supporting counter-insurgencies, supporting the overthrow of foreign governments such as Diem in South Vietnam, supporting wiretapping of Martin Luther King without warrants) are downright right-wing by today’s standards.

Ira Stoll made the case for JFK’s conservative bent in his 2013 book JFK, Conservative. The Daily Caller offered six reasons a conservative should celebrate JFK. 

I was highly critical of Reagan’s presidency. Most people have forgotten how scandal-ridden his administration was. I did not believe the claim that he “won” the Cold War. However, one does have to give him credit for recognizing new realities in the Soviet Union. He shifted from a hard-line anti-communist, vehemently opposed to the “evil empire,” to negotiate dramatic arms reductions with Mikhail Gorbachev.

David Wharton succinctly pointed out why many people consider Reagan’s presidency a success, though obviously any president’s economic success is attributable in part to factors beyond his control, such as the business cycle:

Poverty rate in 1981: 14%; in 1989: 12.8%.
Inflation rate in 1981: 10.35%; in 1989 4.83%.
Commercial bank prime lending rate in 1981: 19%; in 1989: 10.5%.
U.S. unemployment rate in 1981: 7.6%l; in 1989: 5.3%.
Real GDP (in billions) in 1981: $5291.7; in 1989: $6981.4.

John Patrick Diggins, in his book, “Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History,” discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Reagan’s governing philosophy.

George Will, in “The Limits of Sunniness,” says Republicans need to grow beyond their idolatry of Reagan. “Reaganism tells people comforting and flattering things that they want to hear; the Madisonian persuasion tells them sobering truths that they need to know.” Links worth perusing.

Drill Deeper: 


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