Upbeat Conservatism, Traditional Values Define Reagan Legacy

Article excerpt

Ronald Reagan didn't bother waiting for Dick Thornburgh.

The politicians met at a Republican Party dinner in Westmoreland County in 1977. Reagan lost a primary challenge to Gerald Ford the year before. Thornburgh was trying to decide whether to run for governor. After being introduced, the president-to-be took the podium and thanked Thornburgh as "the next governor of Pennsylvania."

It wouldn't be the last time Thornburgh watched him set the terms of a political discussion. Sunday marks 100 years since the birth of Reagan, the nation's 40th president and oldest occupant of the White House, popular still. An airport and an aircraft carrier bear his name, and his presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., draws conservative activists and candidates.

In the 30 years since his inauguration, political battles have played out mostly under terms Reagan set forth, Thornburgh said.

"He changed the terms of the debate," Thornburgh said. "The debate became one over the size of government, the cost of government, the tax burden. He put them on the agenda in a way they hadn't been for years, since prior to the New Deal."

In the late 1970s, the steel industry's retrenchment crippled this region's economy, bringing recession to Pennsylvania before most of the country.

"People here in Western Pennsylvania were seeing the world collapse around them. They saw President Reagan as fighting for them," said U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, whose interest in politics budded during Reagan's administration. The third-term congressman has read several Reagan biographies and listened to hours of his recorded radio addresses.

A blend of optimistic language and social conservatism on issues such as gun control and religion helped Reagan win over disaffected blue-collar workers. A voting bloc emerged: Reagan Democrats.

"They worked hard all day, and they wanted to keep their money," said Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair. "Lower taxes, smaller government, less-intrusive government, strong defense, traditional values -- he took positions that touched the hearts" of blue-collar Democrats.

Opponents in the labor movement say Reagan's anti-union policies hurt middle-class workers. Reagan's portrayal of government workers as inept agents of an overbearing state eroded support for public employees and their unions, said Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea. That sentiment continues to divide private and public sector workers, he said.

"They're just middle-class" workers, Shea said. "When are we going to stop this madness and quit picking on the middle class?"

Reagan's appeal to blue-collar workers was more emotional than economic, Altmire said. His plain-spoken arguments appealed to people, including U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, then a 32-year-old car dealer struggling to pay bills.

"He wasn't a policy wonk, and he wasn't a guy who tried to dazzle you with facts and figures," said Kelly, R-Butler. …