Being claimed by everyone is certainly preferable to being claimed by no one, but the constant invocation of Reagan’s name to bolster arguments for present-day policies (and present-day politicians) actually hinders our understanding of the substance of Reagan’s legacy—and undermines the Republican Party’s ability to make a case for itself in the here-and-now.
However remarkable or successful a president he may have been, Reagan was not a man for all seasons or causes. Less obviously, he was not a man for all conservative causes. But he brought with him a distinct philosophy that, in combination with his no less distinct temperament and disposition, largely set the model for a successful American conservatism. The record lies in the decades of words and deeds that he devoted to public life. Examining that record enables us to say with some precision what he stood for, what he didn’t stand for—and where he was ready to compromise even with sworn enemies.
Gaining a fuller picture of that Reagan may provide some helpful guidance for conservatives, and not just conservatives, in the troubled present.
In his nearly three-decade political career, the former actor Ronald Reagan played many roles: spokesman for the nascent conservative movement, two-term governor of California, challenger of an incumbent president from his own party, and two-term president who reshaped the political landscape and altered the course of both the United States and the world. Was there a systematic set of principles, a political philosophy, driving all this activity? There was, but its essential terms are misunderstood by many of Reagan’s most ardent admirers.
To begin with perhaps the most important distinction: Reagan was indeed a great champion of human freedom, just as his admirers say, and a nemesis of statism. Nevertheless, he was no simplistic, doctrinaire libertarian.
The core of Reagan’s thought lay not primarily in his love of freedom, as powerful as that was, but in something else, something captured in the epitaph on his grave, which quoted his own words:
I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.
For Reagan, human dignity—not human freedom—came first. This idea permeated his political career.
As early as 1957, in a commencement address at Eureka College, his alma mater, he defined the Cold War as “a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe.” For Reagan, human dignity was what enabled human freedom—that is, the ability of each individual to “shape his own destiny”—not the reverse.
A minor-seeming difference, but a crucial one. For Reagan, it meant that everyone’s choice, whether great or humble, was worthy of protection, and that common virtues were to be valued as much as, if not much more than, uncommon ones. A 1964 National Review essay makes that crystal-clear. Conservatives, he wrote, aim to “represent the forgotten American—that simple soul who goes to work, takes out his insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’” By virtue of his dignity, such a person, neither high nor low, ought to be allowed to live his life as he sees fit.
He believed the same human dignity was to be found among the destitute. Reagan’s problem with welfare was not that some people received a government check: “I accept without reservation,” he said, “our obligation to help the aged, disabled, and those unfortunates who, through no fault of their own, must depend on their fellow man.” What he despised was a system that “perpetuate[d] poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a paycheck,” thereby “destroy[ing] self-reliance, dignity, and self-respect.” His own reform program, he said in his second inaugural address as governor of California, would instead “maximize human dignity and salvage the destitute.”
This elemental stress on human dignity either went unnoticed or, when noticed, was actively resented by some close to him. David Stockman, Reagan’s first White House budget director, famously called him “too sentimental” for the job of making government into “a spare and stingy creature which offered even-handed public justice, but no more.’’ In his 1986 memoir, The Triumph of Politics, Stockman complained that Reagan “sees the plight of real people before anything else.” True, but this was no mere habit or tic; it was the product of a deeply held conviction about a fundamental obligation of society.
Tellingly, the same conviction lay behind Reagan’s disinclination to adopt the “fuel the entrepreneur” model of economic policy favored by some on the right today. From 1979 to 1981, in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, he used the word entrepreneur only once in all his major speeches on taxes and the economy. In his first inaugural address as president, the figure of the entrepreneur appears alongside that of the factory worker, the farmer, and the shopkeeper. All are heroes, and all have “every right to dream heroic dreams.”
Tax cuts for Reagan were not an exercise in bringing the top rate down in order to free the lone entrepreneur; they were about giving everyone more wealth to use as he saw fit. Reagan also placed a heavy emphasis on deregulation. Except where absolutely necessary, government regulation, he said, infringed on human dignity because “government can’t control the economy without controlling people.”
Nor, more generally, did Reagan ever embrace the ideology of an unfettered free market that is so often ascribed to him. In his address at Eureka College, he advocated an “economic floor beneath all of us so that no one shall exist below a certain standard of living.” In 1964, he endorsed the idea of Social Security. That same year, and at a time when Medicare did not yet exist, he declared that “no one in this country should be denied medical care because of a lack of funds.”
Does this mean that Reagan supported in toto the programs created by the New Deal and Great Society? Quite the opposite. In his view, most of those programs either forced people into a one-size-fits-all mold unsuited to their particular needs or delivered benefits to those who neither needed nor benefited from them. Although he never laid out a comprehensive view of his ideal welfare state, its basic lineaments emerge from his own programs and major speeches.
Reagan’s welfare state would provide assistance only to those truly in need, and those benefits would be generous. He often touted the success of his California welfare reform, which not only removed people from the rolls but increased benefits to remaining recipients by an average of 43 percent. At the same time, he tried to remove support from those, regardless of income level, who did not need it. One of his budget-cutting targets during his presidency (as is true of today’s Tea Party) was the Export-Import bank. He also wanted to eliminate subsidies to Amtrak, which was costing taxpayers an average of $35 for each passenger it boarded. “Need” for Reagan was an objective concept, not simply a synonym for “want.”
His ideal state would also recognize individual differences in ability and preference. He did not regard Social Security and Medicare as inherently unjust or as unconstitutional exercises of federal power. Rather, he objected to their cookie-cutter uniformity and their coerciveness, a mix that for most people resulted in a bad deal. A person working over an average lifetime at an average salary, he pointed out, could buy an annuity upon retirement that paid nearly twice as much as Social Security. Medicare, for its part, was objectionable mainly because it “forc[ed] all citizens, regardless of need, into a compulsory government program.”
Finally, Reagan’s fundamental stress on human dignity infused his view of the world beyond America’s shores as well as his deep, uncompromising opposition to Communism—truly, to him, the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” in which individuals were conceived and treated as slaves, to be used at will by the state. By contrast, America—the land that enabled every individual to live a life of quiet nobility—had been, he asserted, divinely placed to exemplify the bedrock principle of humanity to the world. “Call it mysticism if you will,” he said; mystical or not, this idea of America’s character and mission was thoroughly of a piece with his general philosophical orientation.
From all of this there emerges a mind-set clearly on the right but not wholly of the right. Reagan often quipped that he did not leave the Democratic Party; in its leftward lurch, it left him. Thus, he never abandoned his New Deal belief that government could genuinely identify and help people in need. But he also never adopted the idea, now heard among conservatives, of an “America in decline,” let alone an America made up of “makers versus takers.” To him, all Americans were makers, and all were capable of becoming takers, in the sense of partakers, of its bounty.
No less of a piece with Reagan’s core political ideas was his public disposition, often characterized as sunny and optimistic. There is certainly something to that, as his consistently upbeat paeans to America and to American possibility confirm. But other qualities of temperament were no less salient.
One of them was his unusual courage. It is largely forgotten now, especially by those on the left who led the attack, but Reagan encountered fierce, white-hot antagonism on nearly every front. When he wasn’t being ridiculed as an uninformed dunce (or an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford said), he was being labeled a racist, a warmonger, a callous oppressor of the poor. Seemingly serenely, Reagan held fast to his course—a course that would eventually see the rollback of Soviet expansionism and the collapse of the “evil empire” abroad and, thanks to “Reaganomics,” the revival of prosperity at home. These are certainly some of the most impressive political feats of the 20th century. (In the words of the economist Lawrence B. Lindsey, Reagan’s economic ideas represented “the greatest challenge to a reigning economic dogma since the overthrow of classical economics in the 1930s.”)
But in addition to having the courage to stick to his ambitions, Reagan understood the nature of politics in a free society and always operated within the four corners of reality. As a former actor, he instinctively grasped the vital importance of public opinion. He spent his political career attempting to shape it, but he was also realistic enough to let it guide both his timing and his choice of which fights merited the expenditure of political capital. He had no interest in impaling himself and his presidency in behalf of such causes as repealing large elements of the New Deal or the Great Society.
Many people are familiar with Reagan’s legendary “there you go again” rejoinder to Jimmy Carter in their one and only debate in 1980. But few recall the context of Reagan’s comments; he wished to make it clear that he was not in favor of doing away with Medicare. The exchange went like this:
Carter: Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare. Now, we have an opportunity to move toward…a national health insurance, important to the American people. Governor Reagan, again, typically is against such a proposal.
Reagan: There you go again. When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed. I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them. [Emphasis added.]
Once in office, indeed, he never sought to eliminate Medicare.
David Stockman said of Reagan, “He had a sense of ultimate values and a feel for long-term direction, but he had no blueprint for radical governance. He had no concrete program to dislocate and traumatize the here-and-now of American society.” Stockman was again being dismissive, but again he was right: Reagan had no interest in traumatizing American society. In key respects, Reagan was more a Burkean conservative than a Jacobin. As president, he was regularly vilified by right-wing activists such as Richard Viguerie and Howard Phillips for being too accommodating, insufficiently principled, a captive of the “establishment,” even a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Such “true believers on the Republican right,” Reagan is reported to have complained to aides, “prefer to ‘go off the cliff with flags flying’ rather than take half a loaf and come back for more.” …
It helped that Reagan was not by nature angry or agitated. To be sure, from time to time he did lose his temper, frequently to great effect. (“I’m paying for this microphone,” he yelled in the New Hampshire debate that turned around a flagging 1980 campaign.) But as a general matter, he was at peace with himself and with his place in the world. One never had the intimation of a dark, resentful side, as was the case with Richard Nixon; or of a prickly, condescending side, as with Barack Obama. And he even had a relatively charitable view of his political adversaries. “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents,” former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who worked as a political aide in the Reagan White House, quotes him as admonishing his staff.
This equanimity added to Reagan’s appeal, and made him, for many people, easy to vote for. …
In short, like most conservatives, Reagan opposed Big Government in the abstract more than he did in the particulars. An illustration: Traveling to the Midwest in 1986, the president boasted to a farm audience that “no area of the budget, including defense, has grown as fast as our support of agriculture,” adding that “this year alone we’ll spend more…than the total amount the last administration provided in all its four years.”
There is no doubt that, overall, he would have preferred to cut government more, but there was no public will for it, and to move adamantly on this front would have forced him to forgo other, more achievable goals, such as deregulation, cutting tax rates, and building up the military.
The same approach was visible in his choice of personnel. Reagan surrounded himself with both “pragmatists” like James Baker and with conservatives like Edwin Meese. His White House communications directors ran the gamut from David Gergen to Patrick J. Buchanan. Sitting in his cabinet were the contrasting Margaret Heckler and William J. Bennett. To the Supreme Court he appointed Sandra Day O’Connor on the one hand and Antonin Scalia on the other. The man who clearly wanted to turn the GOP into a more conservative party campaigned for liberal Republicans such as Charles Percy and Robert Packwood. And when he challenged Gerald Ford in 1976, whom did he pick to be his running mate? Pennsylvania’s Richard Schweiker, one of the most liberal members of the Senate.
Reagan made his share of mistakes. He was a man, after all, who traded arms for hostages, which led to the worst scandal of his presidency. Still, when you put it all together, a picture emerges of a man who was firmly grounded philosophically, committed to attaining his goals, exceptionally resolute, and also much more flexible in his means and methods than many of his contemporary admirers recognize.
Nor can it be forgotten that, despite this flexibility, Reagan secured historic achievements without overreaching or becoming impatient. In his second term a young, impatient Newt Gingrich complained to him about important things that had been left undone. Reagan put his arm around Gingrich and said, “Well, some things you’re just going to have to do after I’m gone.”
Important things were left to be done after Reagan’s presidency, but blessedly fewer than there were before it.
What, then, can Ronald Reagan teach modern-day Republicans, whether in the so-called establishment or in the more populist precincts?
With regard to the former, two things may be said. First, Reagan himself, while never a favorite of the Republican establishment (it regarded him as too conservative, too extreme, too frightening to ordinary Americans), was not in fact antiestablishment. He sought not to destroy the establishment but to win it over to his views. Second, and as a result of Reagan himself, the GOP establishment today is considerably more conservative than it was when he was in office. Congressional Republicans are far less likely to advocate tax increases and have voted for entitlement reforms that far exceed anything he ever proposed. The GOP is also a more solidly pro-life party than when he was elected.
But today’s Republican establishment still has much to learn from Reagan’s example: from his intellectual boldness and willingness to challenge accepted dogmas, from the ease and good-natured confidence with which he handled criticism from the elite media, from his determination to reshape public opinion rather than be held captive by it, and from his ability to identify with struggling blue-collar Americans. Above all, perhaps, the establishment can learn from Reagan’s great conviction that he was elected not to mark time but to make a difference. In this respect, he was more than willing to put forward a governing agenda; he was eager to do so, and wasn’t one to play it safe.
To Tea Party conservatives and their allies, Reagan has another lesson to teach, this one about the importance of prudence—picking battles wisely, and not regarding every issue as a hill to die on. A great party, he would remind them, seeks to enlarge its numbers, not to embark on crusades of purification. Nor is a great leader in principle opposed to negotiations or compromise. As we have seen, Reagan himself practiced the art of compromise throughout his career in politics as well as before, when he was president of the Screen Actor’s Guild. At times he acknowledged what he was doing with his trademark panache. Once, as governor of California, he announced that his feet were set “in concrete” on an issue of state income taxes. When he changed his position, he quipped: “The sound you hear is the concrete cracking around my feet.”
Reagan could also instruct such conservatives in the dangers of abstract theorizing. Ideology, he said in a 1977 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, “always conjures up in my mind a picture of a rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality….I consider this to be the complete opposite to principled conservatism. If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction, it is American conservatism.”
Reagan could offer advice to the right on how to think and talk about domestic policy. Even when proposing cuts to social programs, for example, he would cite the responsibility of government to support those who cannot care for themselves. He would emphasize, moreover, the value of his proposals for the average person. And he would never argue, as some on the right sometimes do today, that the average individual rises or falls on the actions of entrepreneurs who are implicitly his betters. That idea was foreign to Reagan.
Reagan understood that his liberal opponents would portray his ideas as lacking compassion; he sought to defuse their attacks by marshaling empirical counterarguments, through his frequent invocations of common sense and common virtue, and by explaining why his policies advanced the public good. Modern-day conservatives would benefit from internalizing Reagan’s belief in the inherent value of every human soul.
During his career, as he became increasingly successful at reshaping American politics, liberals attempted to discredit Ronald Reagan by damning him with faint praise. It was his amiability, they suggested, and his abilities as an admittedly “great communicator,” that had allowed him to hoodwink a majority of the American people and blind them to the awfulness of their lives in Reagan’s America. To the left, the plain fact—namely, that Reagan was an immensely popular figure—was unbearable, and had to be explained away.
Reagan was a skilled communicator, and that mattered. But his influence endures nearly 50 years after he was first elected to office not because of his good looks or his good luck, and not primarily because of how well he spoke, but because he spoke truths. It was above all his ideas—about the power of liberty and constitutional self-government, about military strength and political clarity in world affairs, and about the indispensable role in a free society of simple virtue and moral character—that account for his enduring appeal. These are, in the American context, conservative ideas, and he succeeded because they succeeded.
No doubt, as Republicans look toward 2016, the ninth presidential election since Reagan was elected in 1980, his name will be repeatedly invoked and invested with almost talismanic powers. That’s understandable, given his extraordinary achievements. But this makes it all the more important that we see Reagan in the totality of his acts, and not as a one-dimensional figure who merely reinforces our own views. From that Reagan, Republicans have more than enough to learn.
And today’s Republicans need to be careful not to be trapped by Reagan as Democrats eventually allowed themselves to become trapped by FDR and JFK. It’s difficult to grow while living in someone else’s shadow. One thing Reagan himself did superbly well, in fact, was to develop a policy agenda that fit the challenges of his time: high inflation, high interest rates, aggressive advances by the Soviet Union. Reagan was a politician of his time and right for his moment, a moment in which he lived fully, dealing with its realities as they were. By contrast, some of his epigones today appear caught in a time warp, acting as if every year is 1980. Reagan, while conservative to the bone, would never have allowed himself to become captive to the past.
In similar fashion, Republican candidates, especially presidential candidates, need to locate themselves firmly in the here and now. They need to show that they are living fully in this moment, in touch with the concerns of voters in this era, up to the challenges of our time. If they can do this, Republicans will be demonstrating that they have indeed learned a central lesson from the greatest politician and the greatest president their party has produced since Lincoln.