Ronald Reagan is dead, and he’s not coming back.
I wish more conservatives could come to grips with this relatively simple fact. We are now in something like the fifth round of the pin-the-tail-on-the-next-Reagan game and it’s getting old. Catering to the conservative base, the GOP presidential candidates keep trying to put on the Reagan mantle the way Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters tried to cram their dogs into her glass slipper. Not gonna happen.
Reagan-mania takes many forms. Some say they want another conservative unifier. Some claim they want a man of principle. Others think the war on terror demands the same sort of resolve Reagan displayed during the Cold War.
All good answers except they rub too much Vaseline on the lens of memory. Reagan had numerous conservative critics, even in his first term. Richard Viguerie, the New Right’s direct-mail impresario, routinely denounced Reagan’s alleged betrayals of conservative principles. Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet, one of my intellectual heroes, was bitterly disappointed by the Reagan presidency. By Reagan’s second term, critics on the right were everywhere. It’s not that conservatives stopped loving him, but few thought he walked on water at the time.
As for Reagan, the man of principle, he was surely that. But if you listen to the crowd yearning for another Reagan today, you’d never guess that he’d signed a very liberal abortion bill as governor of California (he came to regret it). You’d be shocked to learn how many times he signed on to the Democratic Congress’ hikes on gas, payroll and other taxes during the 1980s. Reagan liked cutting taxes, not raising them. All things considered, Reagan still ranks as a heroic tax-cutter, but by the standards of the ’08 GOP primary season, he would hardly count as a “Reaganite” on taxes.
Reagan also met with Soviet dictators, on the condition that they could live long enough to make it to a summit. Many conservatives worried at the time that Reagan wasn’t nearly hard-line enough on the commies.
Look, the point isn’t to denigrate the Gipper, who, studies have shown, was put on this earth to chew gum and kick butt, and he ran out of gum in the early 1960s.
The point is that politics is about moments. The Reagan moment is over. Nisbet once wrote that nostalgia is at best the rust of memory, at worst it is a disease. I would argue it’s also a bit narcissistic. The clamor for a new Reagan is loudest from those who grew up with him, politically speaking. It’s sort of like people who insist that the rock band they grew up listening to was the greatest of all time. The Rolling Stones have to be the best; they meant so much to me!
Reagan accomplished just about all conservatives could reasonably hope for given the constraints of his time. Sure, one can kibitz over this or that apparent shortcoming, but we forget why he sometimes had to settle for half a loaf. It’s a mere fact of logic that he could only accomplish what was possible to accomplish. His challenges were not our challenges today.
America was ready for Reagan in 1980. It wasn’t in 1968 or in 1976, when he also tried for the White House. And, if we could clone him today, it might not be ready for him now. Toothpaste won’t go back in the tube, eggs don’t unscramble, Larry Craig can’t take back the toe-tapping. Life goes forward.
In the 1980s, Christian conservatives were part of the leave-me-alone coalition, arguing that the federal government should stop imposing liberal secular values on their children and institutions. Now, some Christian conservatives want the government to intrude, but this time in ways that promote traditional values. Reagan signed an amnesty for illegal immigrants. Today, John McCain’s similar but tougher stance on immigration has all but disqualified him among people looking for another Reagan. Why? Because the party has learned from Reagan’s mistake in a way McCain has not. Right or wrong, good or bad, one thing is certain: Today’s climate is different than it was a quarter-century ago.
Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and the rest of the pack all want to claim the Gipper-slipper fits them best. But the trick to being the Reagan of today is to be the Reagan of today. Reagan was the needed solution to the problems of a generation ago. The Reagan of today will do the same for today. He will likely agree with the Gipper on a lot of issues, but that agreement shouldn’t stem from play-acting.