The Plank

Reagan Worship Vs. Kennedy Worship


MSNBC's First Read comments:

Never mind the silly debate over whether Reagan should be used as an
icon or not. The issue of Reagan reminds us of the Kennedy-obsession
Democrats had for decades. One could argue it took the Democrats nearly
30 years to kick the Kennedy habit (maybe longer). So, this Reagan
issue may take the Republicans another 10 years to get over.

It's not a good comparison. The Democratic obsession with the Kennedys is/was primarily stylistic. It recurs whenever a young, stylish presidential candidate makes people feel inspired. It is not, and really never has been, common for Democrats to argue that a certain course of action is wise simply because a Kennedy once advocated it. But Republicans have been doing so with regard to Reagan for twenty years now. I wrote an article about this phenomenon in 2000. An excerpt:

On the pages of today's conservative press,
Reagan remains not only a frequent presence but an omniscient figure.
One conservative columnist urges Republicans to "reteach the lessons of
Ronald Reagan to a new generation." Another writes that "it is
optimistic visionaries who succeed, pessimists who fail. Mr. Reagan
taught us that." When conservatives fear they are on the brink of
failure, it is Reagan whom they summon to stiffen their ideological
resolve. "You could conclude that [Steve] Forbes's withdrawal proves
that the basic idea of a coalition of social conservatives and economic
conservatives, oriented toward liberty, is dead," the National Review
editorialized this year, "But that's not the lesson Ronald Reagan
drew." To associate an idea with Reagan is axiomatically to establish
its truth.

The Reagan presidency lives on in
conservative mythology as a bygone utopia peopled by titans against
whom the mortals of today must be measured. As conservative writer
David Frum observed in his 1994 lament, Dead Right, "Post-Bush
conservatives look back on the accomplishments of the early Reagan
years the way seventh-century Romans must have looked at their
aqueducts: to think that we once built all this!" When conservatives
debate the Reagan legacy, it is not to dispute its merits but to lay
competing claims to its mantle. Witness this year's intraconservative
debate over expanding trade with China. Proponents of permanent normal
trading relations pointed to Reagan's support for free trade; opponents
invoked his anti-communism. Had someone dug up a forgotten diary entry
laying out Reagan's position for such a future contingency, it might
have settled the argument then and there. The premise underlying such
debates was explicated by Reagan hagiographer Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote
that "the right simply needs to approach public policy questions by
asking: What would Reagan have done?"

Nothing like this can be found in the Democrats' Kennedy veneration.

--Jonathan Chait

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