A Covenant-Affirming Jeremiad: The Post-Presidential Ideological Appeals of Ronald Wilson Reagan

Article excerpt

During Ronald Reagan's presidency, there seemed to be a strong consensus that Reaganism was a synonym for passive leadership, recklessness, and extremism in both domestic and foreign policy. Scholars predicted the worst for his presidency and his legacy. For example, Charles William Maynes argued that Reagan was "likely to pass on" a very negative "legacy to his successor" (p. 434). Critics were especially skeptical of supply-side economic policies, arguing that Reagan's tax cuts would lead to less, rather than more, revenue producing massive budget deficits (Blinder, 1987). Observers also condemned Reagan's environmental policies as "radical policy departures" and "a failure" (Kraft & Vig, 1984, p. 438). Similar comments could be cited on a host of domestic policies. The scholarly community was equally critical of Reagan's foreign policy. A representative assessment can be found in Russell J. Leng's comment that Reagan's peace-through-strength approach was merely "bullying," which "could promote new crises with the Soviets" (1983, p. 339). William Anderson and Sterling Kernek concluded that Reagan was a "conservative American romantic with an unrealistic vision of the world" (1985, pp. 390, 393). Many others expressed similar views (Johnson, 1988, p. 518; Maynes, 1985, p. 417).

In rhetorical studies, a similar consensus also was evident. David Zarefsky et al. (1984) noted that Reagan strategically used the term "safety net for the truly needy" as a technique to justify massive budget cuts. An analysis of State of the Union Addresses concluded that Reagan supported the agenda of the religious right and did not merely pay lip service to their cause (Moen, 1990). Michael Weiler (1992) strongly condemned Reagan's anti-welfare rhetoric as unfair to the poor. Scholars were particularly scathing in their analysis of Reagan's defense and foreign policies. Several attacked his anti-Soviet rhetoric as confrontational or characterized the proposal to create a Strategic Defense Initiative as dangerous (Goodnight, 1986; Rushing 1986; Schiappa, 1989). Few presidents have elicited as much scholarly criticism for alleged extremism as Ronald Reagan.

Somewhat paradoxically, Reagan was viewed as both extremist and also an essentially empty figure. Typical of the latter view is the comment of Ellen Gold that Reagan "frequently demonstrates an unfamiliarity with the facts and processes of government hitherto unseen in presidents" (1988, p. 159). In the memorable title of one book, he was The Acting President (Schieffer & Gates, 1989). The view of Reagan as out of the mainstream and a mere announcer was so dominant that even his own Vice President, George H. W. Bush, seemed to believe that he must confront it. In the lackluster 1988 campaign, Bush's primary slogan--"A kinder gentler nation"--appeared to be more a response to the previous eight years than a position from which to run against Michael Dukakis (Bush, 1988).

The scholarly consensus has evolved over the last fifteen years. To be sure, not everyone assesses Reagan's ideology or his presidency positively. For instance, the day after Reagan's death, columnist William Saletan (2004) attacked what he considered Reagan's "narrow definition of liberty" and his view that the private sector was always the guardian of individual liberty while the government was always an impediment or an outright threat to individual liberty. And Garry Wills criticized Reagan for essentially inventing a nostalgic past much like a trip "to Disneyland" out of which his capitalist conservatism evolved (1987, p. 459). Although some still sharply attack Reagan's policies or question the extent to which he was in control of their formulation and implementation (Fitzgerald, 2000; Scott, 1996), Reagan's reputation clearly has grown, especially in relation to foreign and defense policy. For example, John Sloan notes that "some presidential scholars have underestimated Reagan's leadership" and concludes that Reagan "had the political skills to meet the challenges of the presidency in a relatively successful manner" (1996, p. …