By the end of his administration, Reagan had reduced that confiscatory 70 percent tax rate to 28 percent. And he won the Cold War. Most presidents don't leave much to remember them by. Reagan has two great legacies.
But what does it mean for America today? Certainly low taxes and a strong national defense remain bedrock principles for conservative Republicans. And when Democrats argue, as Sen. Charles Schumer did recently, that the Reaganite "traditional-values kind of arguments and strong foreign policy, all that is over" -- well, someday they might discover otherwise.
But what specific policy proposal would Reagan embrace today to deal with skyrocketing healthcare costs? The credit crunch? Immigration? No one can really say.
Perhaps it would be more instructive to look at the man himself. Over a lifetime of thought and study -- he was 69 when he became president -- Reagan developed a set of core principles that guided whatever he did. To those core principles -- liberty, free enterprise, American exceptionalism -- he added his own personal qualities. He was a serious reader, a self-improver, decidedly non-cynical, avowedly non-Washington and deeply patriotic. A gift for communicating made those qualities instantly recognizable to the American public.
As you walk around the old ranch, and see the private spaces where he spent so much time, you realize perhaps more than ever before that it was Reagan's character that made his triumphs possible. For Republicans, coherent positions on today's policy debates will emerge in time. The tougher question is where they will find a leader like Ronald Reagan again.