Taking Another Look at Reagan
By Stephen Silver
There's Ronald Reagan, and then there's "Ronald Reagan." There's the real 40th president of the United States, who won two elections in landslides and was the most popular president of modern times- and then there's the pretend Reagan, used to justify modern political decisions by Republicans even if they had nothing to do with what the real Reagan said, did, or believed.
A new book, Will Bunch's "Tear Down This Myth," takes a look at this disconnect, and the way that modern politics, especially on the Republican side, has turned the Ronald Reagan into a political apparition, a standard of 100% conservative purity that no mere mortal politician can ever meet.
A reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of the entertaining Attytood blog, Bunch lays out the events that led to this state of affairs, both before, during and after Reagan's presidency, up until the absurdities of the 2008 Republican primary. The book is an attack not so much on the Gipper himself as on the myth that sprung up around him, especially in the past ten years.
The modern myth of Reagan is as follows: the Gipper was pure conservatism personified, cutting taxes, staring down our enemies, and never giving an inch of quarter to political opponents, all of which singlehandedly brought about the end of the Cold War, rescued the American economy, and caused unprecedented Republican political success. Therefore, any Republican today that strays even an inch from this path is guilty not only of "betraying Reagan's legacy," but of not being a true Republican or conservative at all.
It's too bad that if Reagan himself were alive and able to run for office and did so now, even he would likely be dismissed as insufficiently Reaganesque.
The truth is much more complex. Reagan, while he put through a major tax cut early in his presidency, raised taxes multiple times in the ensuing years, often doing so after agreeing to deals with Congressional Democrats. While Reagan certainly deserves partial credit for the Cold War's end, this was done through negotiation, the kind generally disdained by GOPers today (indeed, some at in the 1980s accused Reagan of appeasement for sitting down with Gorbachev.) Then there's Iran-Contra; I'd love to hear Sean Hannity's reaction if a Democratic administration ever approved arms sales to Iran.
In 2008, the Republican presidential nominating contest was essentially about who could most out-Reagan the others, as two debates were held at Reagan's presidential library and the candidates fell all over themselves to praise the Gipper, while barely mentioning a certain other two-term Republican president of more recent vintage.
Those who take this line fail to remember that Reagan's pragmatism was a huge part of his successes. Bu nch, wisely, points this out- and note that the conservative media has all but ignored the book. National Review's Alan Reynolds mentioned it in passing in a review of another book, but only to dispute Bunch's calculations about the economic benefits of tax cuts, without even touching on the larger thesis of the book.
There was much to praise about Reagan's presidency, from the peaceful end of the Cold War to his relentless optimism to his considerable skills. But to impute nothing less than the political equivalent of superheroes to the ex-president- and making it all but impossible for any other Republican to ever measure up- is another matter entirely. Especially from the same people now denouncing the Democratic "cult" of Barack Obama.
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