Liberalizing Reagan - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Liberalizing Reagan

“God, this is impressive,” said Steven Weisman, a New York Times political reporter, as he watched the nation mourn Ronald Reagan in 2004. “But the man they’re talking about is not the President I covered every day.” One might say the same about the media’s sudden respect for Ronald Reagan as a supposed liberal Republican. That isn’t the Reagan Weisman covered either.

In the 1980s, the media frequently cast Reagan as a crude right-winger. Today, it gushes about him as the model moderate Republican. Expect one of the moderators at tonight’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to hit the candidates with some version of the question: Why aren’t you as liberal as Reagan?

During his presidency, the media called him extreme and stubborn. Now he is “pragmatic” and had a “knack for compromise,” as a recent Washington Post headline put it.

Once dismissed as the father of voodoo economics, Reagan now receives praise from the media for “closing loopholes” in the tax code. Once criticized for driving up spending with Cold War increases in defense, he is now commended for learning to live with exploding deficits. He has also become in the media’s eyes a friend to the environment, a gun control advocate, an open-borders champion, and a social liberal.

“Reagan was able to mix pragmatism with conservatism,” according to the left-wing Center for American Progress Action Fund. “And at critical moments on critical issues, Reagan took positions that are anathema to the leaders of today’s Republican Party — advancing sensible immigration reform, supporting pollution control, curbing nuclear arms, closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, and advocating gun background checks.”

Gone is the Reagan whom liberals used to revile for his opposition to abortion in all cases, support for prayer in public schools, support for the Contras, nomination of Robert Bork, description of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and support for the elimination of government agencies and deregulation. They hated those positions and many others, but all that is forgotten, as his popularity grows in the public mind.

HBO’s Bill Maher is one of the few liberals left who still talks about Reagan with the kind of contempt that was pervasive in the media in the 1980s. “Ronald Reagan was an anti-government, union busting, race baiting, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, who cut rich people’s taxes in half, had an incurable case of the military industrial complex, and said that Medicare was socialism that would destroy our freedom,” Maher has said.

Maher has no time for the media’s current line that Ronald Reagan couldn’t succeed in the Republican Party today. He considers him the “original teabagger” and rebukes Democrats for mythologizing him: “Why are Democrats conceding the argument on Reagan? Obama talks about him like a brother from another mother. He changed the trajectory of America. Yes, but not for the better.”

It serves the media’s ideological purposes to understate Reagan’s conservatism and overstate the conservatism of today’s GOP. Were the party truly “to his right,” Donald Trump wouldn’t be leading the race for its nomination. His idiosyncratic views place him far to Reagan’s left. It is hard to imagine Reagan talking enthusiastically about punishing hedge-fund managers or companies that relocate overseas.

If anything, today’s GOP is more philosophically tepid than it was in Reagan’s day. He represents a traditional America that is fast fading under Obama’s “fundamental transformation,” and many Republicans, including some on tonight’s debate stage, think the party should just endorse those changes. They roll their eyes at talk of a constitutional amendment reversing the Supreme Court’s invention of a right to gay marriage. They want the party to “move on.” During Reagan’s presidency, the issue of gay marriage wasn’t even on the table and the party was supporting a constitutional amendment in favor of prayer in public schools.

Reagan’s strong support for that amendment — “From the early days of the colonies, prayer in school was practiced and revered as an important tradition. Indeed, for nearly 200 years of our nation’s history, it was considered a natural expression of our religious freedom” — would be seen as quixotic and extreme within many GOP circles today. The media doesn’t acknowledge such changes. It prefers to try and harness Reagan’s popularity for its own agenda by portraying him as more politically correct than his successors.

In life, he was condemned by the media for the “bold colors” under which he encouraged Republicans to fight. But now reporters look back and see only “pale pastels.”

George Neumayr
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George Neumayr, a senior editor at The American Spectator, is author most recently of The Biden Deception: Moderate, Opportunist, or the Democrats' Crypto-Socialist?
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