Getting Reagan Nostalgia Right and Wrong

I should have come yesterday—on Reagan’s birthday—to Jim Antle’s American Conservative article “Five Ways Reagan Nostalgia Misleads Conservatives.”  From the title, I expected another unsound approach to Reagan that we’ve seen from people like Jeb Bush, or the usually spectacular Jennifer Rubin who urged us to “get over Reagan.”  The Reagan critics emphasize that times have changed since 1980, so there’s not much use in invoking the Reagan legacy.

So I was pleasantly surprised at how good and sound Antle’s article is, on each of his five points.  I’ll just list the five main points here with a little commentary from me, but you can read Antle’s complete text for his take:

“1. Excessive optimism.”  My comment: Reagan’s optimism was part congenital, but part rooted in his substantive view of the world.  Too often Reagan’s would-be successors come across insincere through their superficial imitation of Reagan. (Exhibit One: Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign.)  And Reagan always coupled his optimism with harsh criticism of liberalism and big government today.

“2. More Paine than Burke.”  My comment: Reagan’s invocation of Thomas Paine (“We have it within our power to begin the world over again”) was problematic on substance (George Will said “Anywhere, anytime, this is nonsense”), but Reagan was able to finesse this fairly well.  He was a blend of past and future that is hard to match.

“3. Triumphalism in foreign affairs.” 

“4. Economic liberties over civil liberties.”  My comment: Not sure I agree with Antle that Reagan was weak on civil liberties (his main evidence is the drug war), or that it is mistaken to make economic liberties a priority.

“5. Republican presidents are a conservative’s best friend.”  My comment: Pretty sure I agree with Antle here.  The two Bushes, while better than their Democratic alternatives by a country mile, were disappointments in some very important ways.  Post-Reagan, we seem to have reverted to Nixon-Eisenhower Republicanism.  That isn’t all bad, but candidates who claim to be the would-be heirs of Reagan should be held to a genuine Reaganite standard.

It’s not Reagan’s mix of opinions that deserve study and emulation, but his very complete and sophisticated approach to political life.  He made it look easy, though we have come to know that in fact he thought deeply about how to be politically effective, and put in a lot of hours polishing his act so that it didn’t look like an act.

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