It's slowly dawning on the liberals that it's not going to be enough to ignore Ronald Reagan. Like it or not, they're going to have to take him on, head-first, and try to convince the American people, or at least the historians of his era, that he was a fundamentally bad guy.
I don't envy them the job. Reagan was an immensely popular president. Not long after his retirement I told him, in a private conversation, that I thought his historical popularity would follow the trajectory of most of his predecessors' -- declining somewhat at first, then rising again till he assumed at last his proper place in the presidential pantheon.
I was wrong. Right from the start, after he left the White House, commentators on both the right and the left have recognized him as one of the major presidents of the 20th century, who shaped the country's policies and future in important ways. This is already, clearly, the judgment of history, and there is nothing the liberals can do about it.
They can, however, try to distort his achievements. For a long time they pretty much neglected this, preferring to hope that, if they just ignored him, his memory would gradually fade. But it has failed to do so. On the contrary, he is as alive as ever in the memory of the American people, and is almost (if not quite) universally beloved. It is positively comical to see how all of the Republican presidential wannabes, in election after election, proclaim themselves "Reagan Republicans," and vie for the honor of wearing his mantle. It is almost the exact equivalent of the fetish the Democrats have made of FDR.
As you might expect, some of the current crop of Democratic politicians are not above trying to get a little of the Reagan glory to rub off on them. One of the most recent is Barack Obama, who told a Nevada newspaper that Reagan had offered America a "sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." This is incontestably true, but Obama neglected to couple it with some balancing words of condemnation that certain of his Democratic colleagues apparently felt were necessary.
So Obama has been landed on by the gatekeepers of the Democratic shrine, for whom Ronald Reagan was -- and must always be portrayed as -- irremediably evil. Thus Paul Krugman, who embarrasses even the Op-Ed page of The New York Times with his frantic liberalism, bluntly declared, "the furor over Obama's praise for Ronald Reagan is not, as some think, overblown. The fact is that how we talk about the Reagan era still matters immensely for American politics."
Krugman follows this up with a column's worth of tendentious denunciations of Reagan's policies: "Reaganomics failed. ... The Reagan economy was a one-hit wonder. ... (T)he inevitable recession arrived (in the Bush years).... There wasn't any resurgence (in productivity)." Etc., etc.
In all of this, of course, Krugman misses the point. Perhaps more accurately, he avoids the point. Arguing over this or that aspect of Reagan's economic record misses the true significance of the man as totally as the Liberty-League nitpickers of the mid-1930s missed the significance of Franklin Roosevelt. It wasn't FDR's grotesque economics, or his disastrous court-packing plan, that made the New Deal memorable and popular. It was the man's panache, and his obvious confidence in the fundamental strength and vitality of American society, that endeared him to the voters.
Similarly, what characterized Ronald Reagan, and made him memorable, was his pride in this country and in its commitment to the principles of freedom, both here and abroad. Americans saw in him a reflection of their own nobility, and responded to it. That is the mark of a true leader, and that is what the Reagan "myth" was really about.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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