Reagan Revisionism And Reagan Mythology

by Jonathan Chait | February 7, 2011

Politico has an interesting feature about the fear among conservatives that their campaign to canonize Ronald Reagan has turned their hero into a post-ideological hero, rather than an embodiment of conservative values. A specimen of this fear is Steven Hayward's National Review essay, Reagan Reclaimed," castigating liberals for an ideological kidnapping of Ronaldus Magnus.

Before I wade into this, I should summarize my view of Reagan. I don't think he was a great president. The main accomplishment which he's credited, winning the Cold War, is one in which his policies contributed a very small amount. The most important cause of the fall of the Soviet Union by far was its failed, unsustainable political and economic system, which would have eventually collapsed regardless of American policy. (It's interesting that conservatives' mania for crediting Reagan with the fall of the USSR has required them to downplay the inherent faults of communism, which you'd think they'd naturally emphasize.) The second factor, a distant second, is the postwar containment architecture, created by Harry Truman and maintained by every president through George H.W. Bush, which including a military commitment to defend Western Europe, a series of anti-Soviet alliances, military support for governments threatened with communist invasion  and occasional diplomatic or military support for anti-communist guerillas. A third factor, far less significant than the second, was Reagan's incremental ratcheting up of the bipartisan containment policy, which may have slightly hastened the Soviet crackup.

Domestically, Reagan had two main accomplishments. One was to legitimize the religious right as a powerful Republican constituency, a change that has continued to reverberate through American politics. The second was to legitimize massive, non-emergency deficits:

When Dick Cheney batted down a concern about red ink at an internal policy meeting of the Bush administration by insisting "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he was expressing a perception that has transformed Republican politics ever since.

Now, it's true that the Reagan policies I've described were right-wing ones which alienated liberals at the time and to this day, and have made him a beloved figure on the right.

The source of the revisionism is that, in two of those areas, Reagan reversed himself completely. In foreign policy, he alienated the right by pursuing a detente policy with the USSR. Domestically, his administration recognized that the formula of higher defense spending plus huge tax cuts was a recipe for total fiscal disaster. Reagan agreed to a series of large tax hikes after 1981, and in 1986 signed a tax reform that, while lowering nominal rates, increased the share of taxes paid by the rich.

All of these things would be totally anathema to the modern GOP. (The Bowles-Simpson commission proposed a tax reform similar to Reagan's, and a handful of Republicans were willing to accept it only in return for large spending cuts.) The liberal case for Reagan, then, is that, after introducing new, previously unthinkable right-wing policies, he pragmatically abandoned them as a failure. Conservatives have since pretended that they were Reagan's consistent policy as part of a successful effort to entrench them as unchallenged party dogma.

The right's reaction to this revisionist account is an attempt to preserve the myth of Reagan as right-wing purist. Heyward, in National Review, repeats the charge -- "He raised taxes! He talked to the Soviets and reached arms agreements!" -- but seems to think that putting sarcastic exclamation points after these facts is sufficient to refute them. Heyward's refutation focuses on the fact that Reagan and the left did not like each other much at the time, which doesn't refute the point.

The closest Heyward comes to explaining away Reagan's turn away from (what we now regard as) conservatism is to note that "He expressed disappointment in his diary in 1983 when the Greenspan commission on Social Security came in with a conventional tax-hiking plan to keep the system alive." Right, except he wound up supporting it.

The idea of Reagan as dissident to his own administration's policies actually dates back to the Reagan administration itself, when conservatives complained that the president had been captured by moderate advisors. They even formulated a slogan, "Let Reagan be Reagan," to express their belief that the administration's policies did not represent Reagan's preferences.

I happen to think conservatives were correct about this. But, then, I think Reagan frequently had little idea what his administration was doing. Lou Cannon's masterful Reagan biography portrayed the man as utterly disengaged from the details of governance:

The sad, shared secret of the Reagan White House was that no one in the presidential encourage had confidence in the judgment or capacities of the president.
Pragmatists and conservatives alike treated Reagan as if he were a child monarch in need of constant protection.
Reagan's reliance on metaphor and analogy for understanding made him vulnerable to arguments that were short on facts and long on theatrical gimmicks.
He made sense of foreign policy through his long-developed habit of devising dramatic, all-purpose stories with moralistic messages, forceful plots, and well-developed heroes and villains.
The more Reagan repeated a story, the more he believed it and the more he resisted information that undermined its premises.
Ronald Reagan's subordinates often despaired of him because he seemed to inhabit a fantasy world where cinematic events competed for attention with reality.

(Those excerpts were culled from Rick Hertzberg's classic 1991 review-essay about Reagan.)

The trouble with the conservative view of Reagan as internal dissident to the Reagan administration is twofold. First, it requires us to construct an alternate definition of "Reaganism" that is defined by diary entries and other expressions of Reagan's private thoughts, as opposed to the actual Reagan administration policies.

Second, conservatives deny the obvious corollary to #1: Reagan was intellectually detached and/or suffering from early Alzheimer's symptoms during his presidency. Indeed, they regard this as a scurrilous lie, even as they wave off huge swaths of his policy as the manipulations of aides working against his wishes. I have never seen a conservative attempt to reconcile these two key elements of the Reagan liturgy. Ultimately, Reagan worship is an exercise in creating politically useful myths for the conservative movement.

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