Reagan Revelation: At 100, Why He Still Matters

A century after his birth and 30 years after he took office, President Ronald Reagan's optimistic vision and complex conservatism inspire and haunt Republicans and Democrats alike

  • Michael Evans / ZUMA Press

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    Political scientists speak of transformational vs. transactional leaders. Catalyst or figurehead. Agent of change vs. defender of the status quo. Transforming Presidents — think Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, T.R. and FDR — boldly challenge the orthodoxy of their time, leaving in their wake an alternative consensus that effectively extends their grip on power, sometimes for decades. By promising Depression-era Americans economic security through government action, Franklin Roosevelt established political norms that lasted half a century. Yet the life jacket of one generation can become the straitjacket of the next. Four times, a young Reagan cast his vote for the father of the New Deal. At the time, he could scarcely imagine that one day, he would lead his own political revolution, a conservative crusade to undo the ascendancy of Washington first proclaimed by his boyhood hero.

    Unlike Roosevelt, who enlisted the state to fulfill democracy's promise, Reagan relied on an unfettered marketplace to disseminate possibility. In his cherished city on a hill, individual liberty was celebrated as a gift from God, not government. Reagan's skill — or luck — in averting the consequences of failed policies won him status as the Teflon President. Exactly the opposite holds true where political realignment is concerned. For only Reagan could supply the adhesive necessary to bind Greenwich brokers and Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Jeanne Kirkpatrick neocons and Pat Buchanan paleocons: a coalition of opposites every bit as improbable as FDR's ragtag alliance of Southern racists and Northern blacks, dust-blown farmers, big-city bosses and Ivy League brain trusters.

    Not content simply to move the center of political gravity to the right, Reagan remade American conservatism into an instrument of reform. He outsourced the preservation of Social Security to a bipartisan commission chaired by Alan Greenspan, in the process defusing an issue that was traditionally lethal for Republicans. Defying the second-term jinx, he vastly simplified the federal tax code, discharging millions of low-income Americans from taxpaying obligations altogether. And if he was initially forced to disguise his philosophical U-turn as a mere change of course, the time would come when Reagan's successors had no choice but to conform to his vision. Thus, when Bill Clinton famously proclaimed the era of Big Government at an end, he wasn't so much renouncing his activist instincts as deferring to the anti-Washington accord that was Reagan's legacy.

    Reagan understood the difference between learning from the past and living in it. His conservatism was equally optimistic and futuristic. Moreover, he was a practical visionary, happy to claim victory if he could get 80% of what he wanted. Inevitably this provoked rumblings from ideological purists who thought he was being exploited by closet liberals like White House chief of staff James Baker and communications director David Gergen. (They appear not to have considered the possibility that the ultimate Washington outsider might have been exploiting Washington insiders to obtain his goals.) "Let Reagan be Reagan," cried the true believers, confusing guilelessness with naiveté.

    To which one might logically inquire, Which Reagan? The foreign policy hard liner who decried economic sanctions on South Africa's apartheid government as "a historic act of folly" — or the destabilizing democrat who helped drive right-wing dictators from their palaces in Manila and Port-au-Prince, Haiti? Was it the quasi-libertarian who hung Cabinet Room portraits of Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft — or the pinstripe populist who displayed in the Oval Office a likeness of Andrew Jackson?

    Most politicians are incrementalists. Reagan, like Jackson, was anything but. A more conventional President than Reagan would have accepted the basic assumption governing American politics since 1933, that Washington's growing authority over public expenditures and personal decisionmaking was irreversible. Reagan did not merely dispute this notion; he likely demolished it. A more conventional President would take for granted the existing superpower relationship, precariously balanced on the equilibrium of nuclear standoff. Reagan insisted that the Soviet Union was a historical aberration and that the Cold War could be won by the West in his lifetime. Finally, a more conventional President would have contented himself with slowing the rate of increase in the world's nuclear stockpiles. Reagan believed that the arms race could be ended and the stockpiles eliminated.

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