Ronald Reagan has displeased the New Yorker. Twenty-five years gone from the presidency and ten years gone from this life, it seems the nation’s fortieth president still has a capacity to stir angst among the ruling class.
In a piece titled “The Reagan Reflex,” former Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol is but the latest to target Reagan’s legacy and pronounce that — don’t you know — it’s time to move on. The article summons all at once exactly what so infuriated liberals of the day about Ronald Reagan and exasperated GOP establishment at the same time. Indeed, one can almost hear the Reagan response: There they go again.
Shesol begins by taking on the recent celebrations (including one in this space) of Reagan’s 1964 televised speech, titled afterwards “A Time for Choosing,” on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s about-to-lose presidential campaign. This speech, the ex-Clinton aide notes, disturbed, is a sign that “Reagan remains, for Republicans, a monomaniacal obsession—someone to be celebrated and cited and emulated and impersonated without regard to the calendar and, indeed, without cease.”
For example? Shesol writes:
The singularity of Reagan and his lonely place in the conservative pantheon is put in stark relief by photographs of the 1964 Democratic National Convention, in Atlantic City, where massive portraits of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson framed the stage.
He goes on to say that in the conservative pantheon, Reagan stands alone. No Republican rallies include photos of Eisenhower or Nixon or Poppa Bush, although Shesol allows that Coolidge has a following in the GOP that once included Reagan himself. True enough — although by writing out the nineteenth century he eliminates the need to explain why all those annual GOP soirées are called “Lincoln-Reagan” dinners.
But Mr. Shesol has a point — just as he misses a point. The reason Reagan is in that “lonely place” is indeed because it was Reagan who understood exactly the dangers of Big Government. This was one of the main themes of the “Time for Choosing” speech, as when he said:
You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down—up to man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
The reason that the GOP presidents Shesol cites are not in that “conservative pantheon” with Reagan is that they didn’t see things the same way — or at least they didn’t act as if they did. Nixon bequeathed the EPA to the Washington alphabet soup of bureaucracies, Bush 41 raised income taxes, and Bush 43 busied himself with so-called “compassionate conservatism” and added No Child Left behind to the federal education bureaucracy. Reagan had tried to abolish the U.S. Department of Education outright. There is no more stark example of why Reagan is beloved and the rest are not.
There are many names for the Republican establishment. Barry Goldwater called them “dime store New Dealers,” others the “me too Republicans” or, popular today, “RINOs” — Republicans In Name Only. But Reaganite they were — and are — certainly not.
Which brings me to Shesol’s next point:
There is a tension between being the “next Ronald Reagan” and being one’s own person. Some Republicans recognize this. “Ronald Reagan is dead. Accept it,” Ford O’Connell, a Party strategist, wrote, in a recent book. “The Reagan fixation is a drag on the future success of the GOP.…It undermines the candidates because it becomes a crutch for their inability to articulate an actual agenda or a forward-looking vision.” Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter, has cautioned that “the next GOP presidential nominee cannot be…prone to Reagan-era rhetoric about tax rates and regulatory burdens.”
Well…yes! Exactly. There is tension here. But contrary to the impression being left, this tension has nothing to do with Ronald Reagan other than that Reagan had the great good fortune to embody the anti-statist argument with a smile and an all-American down-to-earth-sensibility. It is amusing to see a “party strategist,” a Bush 43 speechwriter and a Clinton speechwriter in agreement that Reagan has gotta go. Imagine that!
The fact of the matter is that opposition to a perpetually growing the federal Leviathan is and has been at the center of the debate between the GOP’s conservative wing and its establishment wing for decades, long pre-dating the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a serious political figure. This was at work with the rise of Calvin Coolidge and later Ohio Senator Robert Taft in his various battles with liberal New York Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey (the GOP nominee in 1944 and 1948), and the classic Taft-Eisenhower brawl for the 1952 GOP presidential nomination.
Last (but certainly not least!) we come to a point in which Shesol brought up yours truly. Writing of the need for creativity and innovation — in government, but of course — he says:
It is awfully hard to innovate when so many of your bedfellows believe that all questions have been settled; all alternatives have been foreclosed; all outcomes have been preordained. If you want to understand our present politics, Jeffrey Lord, another Reagan aide, insists, “all one has to do…is re-visit that ‘Time for Choosing’ speech…It’s all right there.” This is the same pat, peremptory way that Justice Antonin Scalia—a Reagan appointee—talks about the Constitution. Reaganism, as propounded today, is the political equivalent of strict constructionism.
Well, no. The peremptory argument here is that of Leftists, progressives, and liberals, who for decades on end, not to mention the current last six years of the Obama era, have furiously insisted on a strict adherence to, in the words of Reagan’s friend Lady Thatcher, “planning, regulation, controls and subsidies…a vision of the future [of] a democratic socialist society, third way between east European collectivism and American capitalism.” Really creative ideas — abolishing Obamacare or the Department of Education and countless others that follow principles of limited government — bring gasps of disbelief.
When Reagan delivered that “Time for Choosing” speech in 1964, he was in fact pilloried by liberals of the day as an extremist. In fact, establishment Republicans of the day said the same thing. As late as March of 1980, with Reagan well on his way to beating George H.W. Bush for the presidential nomination, no less a GOP luminary than former President Gerald Ford took to the pages of the New York Times to warn his fellow Republicans that Reagan was too “extreme” to ever be elected president.
Ford, of course, lost the White House as an incumbent president to Jimmy Carter. Reagan would go on to defeat Carter in 1980 by carrying forty-four states, and would win re-election four years later over ex-Vice President Walter Mondale by carrying every state but one.
Which brings me to the last, doubtless sensitive-for-some political point. Reagan’s twin presidential landslides have never been equaled by any of his successors. President Bush 41 rode Reagan’s coattails in 1988 to win what was called in the day “Reagan’s third term” — although nine states dropped off the bandwagon. Fours later, with moderate Republicanism having ruled the White House for four years, he lost, earning only 37 percent of the vote and carrying eighteen states.
Bill Clinton won his first term with a mere 43 percent of the vote and 32 states, and his re-election with 49 percent and 31 states.
President Bush 43 lost the popular vote to Al Gore and only eked out victory in the Supreme Court.
President Obama carried 28 states in beating John McCain, and 26 states indefeating Mitt Romney.
In other words? No president since Reagan has had his political clout or popularity. What Mr. Shesol says over there in the New Yorker is nothing new.
Ronald Reagan understood the statist teflex in his bones, and knew that it was ultimately dangerous to American freedom. Which is why he remains to conservatives a hero — and to folks like Mr. Shesol a pariah.
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