Opting for foolishness

Most liberal commentary on Ronald Reagan this week takes one of two approaches — either the pundit says something resembling what he or she actually thought of Reagan or the pundit reinvents Reagan as a moderate and attributes Reagan’s success to his alleged moderation. Both approaches carry risks. The first makes the commentator appear churlish; the second can easily make him appear foolish.
E.J. Dionne opts for the foolish approach in his piece about Reagan bizarrely entitled “The New Dealer.” (Dionne’s effort to link Reagan’s presidency to FDR’s consists of pointing out that they both said they wanted to help real people and noting that Reagan once said that Americans have a rendezvous with destiny). Dionne goes on to claim that Reagan was not an ideologue because he compromised at times. By this definition, no president has even been an ideologue. (Dionne, of course, is taking a shot at the current president. But George Bush is not an ideologue by any definition on domestic issues and, using Dionne’s odd definition, isn’t even an ideologue on Iraq, as Dionne’s colleague David Ignatius argues today).
As evidence of Reagan’s moderation, Dionne cites Reagan’s recognition that Gorbachev was “a serious man seeking serious reform.” But Reagan didn’t compromise with Gorbachev on ideological issues. Rather he provided incentives and encouragement for Gorbachev to dismantle his evil empire. In short, he was a helpful ideologue.
Most absurd of all is Dionne’s claim that Jimmy Carter also helped win the Cold War through “human rights policies [that] helped restore the United States’ moral standing.” Dionne, of course, offers no evidence that Carter’s policies had any effect other than to make us appear weak. And it’s difficult to even imagine a causal link between any human rights policy of Carter and the collapse under pressure of the Soviet Union, which is what, by definition, brought victory in the Cold War.
So how can liberals avoid being churlish or foolish when it comes to Reagan? Surprisingly, Richard Cohen largely manages it by acknowledging Reagan’s triumphs (with a minimum of revisionism) and by not talking much about the aspects of Reagan that bothered him. An even better approach may be the one I hope I take when Jimmy Carter dies — silence.