Getting Reagan right

During the Reagan administration and its immediate aftermath, congressional Democrats and their adjuncts among the mainstream media portrayed the Reagan years as a disaster at home and abroad. Even as the economy was booming, the press portrayed the Reagan era as the return of the Great Depression.

The classic example of this phenomenon was the widely syndicated 1991 newspaper series and subsequent bestselling book America: What Went Wrong? by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele. Rewriting the record of the present and the immediate past proved to be a task beyond the skills even of these talented propagandists. As Reagan himself used to say, facts are stubborn things.

The Reagan era has receded into the past, losing its partisan currency, and the evidence of Reagan’s intellectual seriousness has emerged in the books of his letters and radio commentary. Prominent liberal academics have accordingly given up on the project of trashing Reagan and have even expressed admiration of him that was unthinkable at the time. Yet now conservatives have a hard time getting Reagan right, even as he has become what Steve Hayward calls “the beau ideal of the modern conservative statesman.”

Hayward is the author of The Age of Reagan, 1964-1980: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order and the forthcoming The Age of Reagan, 1980-1989: The Conservative Counterrevolution. In his AEI Bradley lecture “The Reagan Revolution and its Discontents,” Hayward finds the conservative nostalgia for Reagan in need of adjustment. He confesses that he has grown “tired and impatient with the particular form of Reagan nostalgia as it comes to sight most often today, which is more reminiscent of his flabby ‘morning in America’ campaign of 1984 than his much sharper and [more] purposeful campaign of 1980.”

in his lecture Hayward makes several timely observations. He recalls aspects of the Reagan administration that frustrated conservatives at the time. Having forgotten these aspects of the Reagan administration, conservatives “are not taking seriously some fundamental challenges of conservative governance.” In order to get Reagan right, Hayward expands his focus beyond the Cold War.

Hayward argues that Reagan’s goals at home and abroad were of a piece: “Reagan’s central idea can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, both in its vicious forms such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.” Thus Reagan sought to roll back the depredations of the administrative state at home even as he sought to roll back the Evil Empire abroad. Hayward quotes and comments on a bracing passage from Reagan’s 1982 speech at Westminster:

“[T]here is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state. History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches–political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.” Reagan’s conflation of “secret police” and “mindless bureaucracy” was no mere coincidence, as his next sentence made clear: “Now, I’m aware that among us here and throughout Europe there is legitimate disagreement over the extent to which the public sector should play a role in a nation’s economy and life”–in other words, “I know you’re not all as freedom-loving as me and Margaret Thatcher”–“but on one point all of us are united: our abhorrence of dictatorship in all its forms.”

Hayward depicts Reagan seeking to restore limited constitutional government. Here he recalls Reagan’s frequent invocation of the founders:

Reagan was the first president since FDR who spoke frequently and substantively about the Founders and the Constitution. This is a remarkable and telling fact. It is largely overlooked today that FDR spoke often about the Founding and the Constitution, but quite differently than Woodrow Wilson did. While Wilson was openly critical of the Founding, FDR’s references to the Founding were mischievous–appearing to be defending or proposing a restoration of the principles of the Founding while in fact attempting a wholesale modification of the meaning of our constitutional order. After FDR, our presidents practically ceased making reference to the Founding or the Constitution–until Reagan arrived….

Yet Reagan’s difficulties controlling spending and growth of the administrative state at home led to the expression of conservative disappointment in his administration. Hayward compares Reagan’s contemporary disapointment of his most ardent supporters with Roosevelt’s disappointment of his: “Liberals talked much the same way about FDR and the New Deal back in the 1930s; many liberals thought the New Deal fell far short of what it should accomplish.” This leads to Hayward’s observation of a central aspect of party politics that was poorly perceived or actively misrepresented, especially by the media in the 1980s, and which is still not adequately recognized by historians today:

Here again a comparison of Reagan and FDR is helpful. Both men had to battle not only with the other party, but also with their own. Both men by degrees successfully transformed their own parties, while at the same time frustrating and deflecting the course of the rival party for a time. This, I suggest, is the heart of the real and enduring Reagan Revolution or Age of Reagan.

Hayward recalls the GOP Senators who acted as though they were in opposition: “[T]hey shared little or none of Reagan’s ideological or partisan spiritedness…” Hayward derives the lesson from FDR and Reagan “that changing one’s own party can be more difficult than beating the opposition party in elections.”

Hayward does not directly comment on Obama’s relationship with his party in Congress. Perhaps it is too early to do so. Obama seems to me representative of the triumph of McGovernism within the Democratic Party. Obama was the leftward most viable candidate among the Democrats’ 2008 candidates, but Obama’s leftism is within the mainstream of the current Democratic Party. Obama seems to have far less internal party opposition to his goals than either Roosevelt or Reagan had.

Hayward’s observation on Obama’s goals accordingly strikes an ominous note: “The arrival of Obama has changed the scene, with an ambitious push to break out of the historic range of the size of government perhaps once and for all amidst the current economic crisis.”

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