What Would Reagan Really Do?

By Romano, Andrew | Newsweek, July 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Would Reagan Really Do?


Romano, Andrew, Newsweek


Byline: Andrew Romano

Some Republicans want to impose a Reaganite purity test on this fall's candidates. Today, though, the 40th president himself wouldn't pass it.

By Andrew Romano

Grown men don't tend to worship other grown men--unless, of course, they happen to be professional Republicans, in which case no bow is too deep, and no praise too fawning, for the 40th president of the United States: Saint Ronald Reagan.

His name is invoked by candidates for offices high and low, from aspiring state assemblyman Anthony Riley of Hesperia, Calif., who constantly referred to himself as a "Reagan Republican" before losing in the 59th district last month, to Danny Tarkanian of Nevada, who framed his failed 2010 primary run for the U.S. Senate as Reagan's "last campaign" and frequently repeated what has to be one of the most tired lines in politics: "We're going to win this one for the Gipper."

For conservatives, Reagan is more than a president. He is a god of sorts: wise, just, omniscient, infallible. Being Republican has long meant being like Reagan--or at least saying you're like Reagan. The writer Dinesh D'Souza neatly captured the conservative CW when he suggested that the right "simply need[s] to ask in every situation that arises: what would Reagan have done?" Period. Problem solved.

But as the rudderless Republican Party seeks to regain power in the Age of Obama, is WWRD (What Would Reagan Do?) really the smartest approach? Progressives, of course, would argue no. The world has changed dramatically since the 1980s, in no small part because of Reagan's efforts as president. The top security threat of 2010 (Islamist terrorism) is not analogous to the top security threat of 1984 (Soviet communism). With China holding as much as $1.7 trillion in U.S. debt, the greatest danger posed by a communist state is no longer military: it's economic. The tax burden now is far lighter than when Reagan took office. And deficits are a global problem rather than a merely national one. To address the challenges currently facing the country, a critic might say, Republicans can no longer simply do as Reagan did.

Such a critic would, incidentally, be correct. As The New Republic's Jonathan Chait has written, politicians who conclude that "all wisdom resides in the canon of Reagan" too often abandon "the hard work of debate and self-examination and incorporating new facts." It is pointless to toss Reagan's vintage 1980s policy positions into the DeLorean and transport them, unaltered, to present-day Washington, D.C. Still, anyone who dismisses Reaganism as little more than a relic is forgetting an important fact: Reagan was the most successful Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, and the only effective conservative leader of the last half century. Republicans who think Reagan is truth (and truth Reagan) may be overdoing it. But he's still the GOP's best model of how to win and how to lead.

The problem, then, is not that conservatives are searching for lessons in his record. It's that they're learning the wrong ones. In the years since Reagan left the White House, a vocal contingent of Republicans has sought to enforce current party orthodoxy--cut taxes at all costs; limit government spending (except defense); let the Bible be your guide--by insisting that Reagan was its source. But while these concepts often shaped Reagan's campaign rhetoric, they didn't define how he governed once in office. As a result, the Reagan that Republicans now revere--a mythical founder figure who always cut taxes, always rattled his saber, and always consulted Jesus--barely resembles the more pragmatic Reagan who actually ran the country. Only six months ago, the Republican National Committee considered subjecting all GOP candidates to a Reaganite purity test that Reagan himself would have failed.

"Reagan is a difficult icon for Republicans," says biographer Lou Cannon. "He was an achiever and, by and large, a successful president. …

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