Ronald Reagan’s non-trivial optimism

Charles Krauthammer on “Reagan Revisionism.” He argues that Reagan’s adversaries face a quandry — “how to remember a man they anathematized for eight years but who enjoys both the overwhelming affection of the American people and decisive vindication by history” — and solve it by “dwelling endlessly on the man’s smile, his sunny personality, his good manners; above all, his optimism.” In so doing, says Krauthammer, they trivialize everything Reagan accomplished.
I think that Krauthammer accurately describes the first reaction of most liberal pundits, especially lightweights of the Patricia Schroeder variety. But as the outpouring for Reagan has swelled, Reagan revisionism has become more sophisticated. Liberal commentators have had to deal with the substantive Reagan. They have usually done so by downplaying his conservativism and citing (mostly specious) differences between Reagan and President Bush, who is actually the less conservative of the two. All-in-all, it’s been a bad week for the liberal media, which can’t wait to get back to what Dan Rather calls “the reality of Iraq,” by which is meant unrelenting and unwarranted pessimism about that country. (See Ratherbiased.com for more on how Rather is holding up).
Which brings us back to the theme of Reagan’s optimism. Krauthammer is right to see media references to it as an attempt to damn with faint praise. Nonetheless, the importance of Reagan’s optimism is not trivial. Before Reagan, conservativism was a pessimistic creed, and had been so ever since Burke figured out that the French Revolution could only lead to no good. American conservatives like Barry Goldwater normally offered Americans a diet consisting of a long twilight struggle with Communism (with an uncertain outcome) and belt-tightening fiscal restraint. Liberals, by contrast, were can-do optimists who thought we could get along with our adversaries while solving one domestic problem after another. The only major recent tax cut had been the brain-child of a liberal president, John Kennedy. Reagan changed all of this in ways that don’t require elaboration. In doing so, he stood American politics on its head, and arguably altered the course of history.

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