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.
John McCain was an authentic war hero, whose heroism was refined in the torture chambers of the Hanoi Hilton. Independents like him, but he enrages "pure" conservatives for his compromises on campaign finance reform and immigration. "Straight talk" is never "pure." Mitt Romney sounds good on the social issues, but his views arrived a little too late to be fully trusted. His attempts at humor sound forced against the spontaneous wit of the Gipper. Rudy Giuliani's tough stance on the Islamist terror threat reassures conservatives, but three wives (and the manner of his second divorce), and his views on social issues make him difficult for many conservatives to take. Mike Huckabee is steadfast on most social issues, but can't decide whether he wants to be the national leader or the national pastor; he didn't earn many converts with his pitch from the pulpit to amend the Constitution to make it more "godly." The leading Republican candidates offer big talk on fiscal conservatism, but their records are mixed.
Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal says the Republican Party is searching for its soul, but no savior has emerged. That's probably a good thing. Secular saviors are never credible. A conservative is someone who looks at the world as it is, not as he wishes it to be. What's important is to look for the best person to deliver what's best for the nation with toughness, leadership, smarts and experience, who's grounded in conservative values and determined to keep the nation safe and the economy strong. A tall order, but the Republican who shows such mettle could restore the Reagan coalition of conservatives, independents and "Reagan Democrats."
It's ironic that the conventional wisdom -- the conventional wisdom is not always wrong -- finds the likeliest figure to restore the conservative coalition is not a Republican conservative, but Hillary Clinton. Like the prospect of hanging, in Dr. Johnson's famous formulation, Hillary concentrates the conservative mind.
To be continued.