Barack Obama is on to something with his praise of Ronald Reagan as "a transformational president." A lot of Democrats screamed, and even a lot of Republicans complained that a Democrat was trying to steal their hero. Ronald Reagan symbolized something else to the rest of us, a man from a time when both Democrats and Republicans could honor a dead president for his actual deeds. He reminded us that it could still be "Morning in America," not "Mourning in America."
The mean characterization of Reagan as an "amiable dunce" has evaporated as his keen intelligence has been revealed in his letters and journals. The man accused of intemperance in his characterization of the Soviet Union as "the evil empire" was vindicated the year after he left office, when the wall he told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down finally came down. The West had won, just as he said it would.
But Ronald Reagan was not a hero of myth -- he was a man, after all -- and he shouldn't be idealized as the "pure conservative." When the Conservative Digest surveyed 350 conservative opinion leaders two decades ago, nearly two-thirds scoffed that President Reagan was not carrying out the conservative agenda. He had appointed men and women to his administration who were not only moderates, but worse, "pragmatists." These critics liked his tax cuts, but deplored the tax increases that followed. He failed to cut big-government entitlement programs so beloved by proponents of the welfare state. His commitment to social issues -- the restoration of school prayers and opposition to abortion, pornography and homosexuality -- was discounted as only lukewarm.
But these critics could stand apart from reality, as well as having to deal with Tip O'Neill and the Democratic partisans in Congress. The Gipper knew he had to hold on to the moderates, so despised by movement conservatives. They had been crucial to his victory in 1980. The moderates in the fractured coalition are crucial to keeping the White House this year, too. It's easy to identify the flaws of candidates who don't live up to a conservative ideal, but Ronald Reagan had flaws, too. "I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages," he said, as that episode unraveled in 1987." My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
In the primaries, every Republican candidate is measured against an ideal "Mr. Conservative," much as women of the court once measured men against the ideal of a knight in shining armor (and as Democrats measure their candidates against a standard of total contempt for George W. Bush). Hence every flaw is identified as lethal.