Political icons are rare in deed, especially ones as badly misunderstood as Ronald Reagan was. Liberals despised him because of what he represented; conservative worshiped him because of what he represented. And as the years have passed, it seems the man’s life is seen through a very definitive black and white prism. You either hated him or loved him; there was little, if any, ambivalence toward him.
Unlike other former presidents who over the years have seen the rough edges of their reputations smoothed over – Nixon – and even some who have grown in stature – Eisenhower – Reagan remains as polarizing a figure in American politics as the day he entered it. His indelible personality and uncompromising worldview defined both the man and the president like no other.
While his policies became a lightening rod for critics and admirers alike – supply-side economics, escalating the Cold War with the Soviet Union – his greatest accomplishment was in how he connected with the electorate. An accomplished, if sometimes ham, actor of the B-movie era, Reagan used his skills of persuasion like a swashbuckler uses his sword. Two terms as governor of California, a tough but unsuccessful primary bid in 1976 against Gerald Ford, and two terms as president would’ve been impossible without his uncanny ability to influence those with whom he vehemently disagreed with and who disagreed with him.
He was the “Great Communicator,” the “Gipper,” a larger than life figure, playing his ultimate role on the ultimate stage, and while the goals of his administration often contradicted the actual accomplishments of it, Reagan forever changed the way in which the office would be viewed and run. In the years since he left politics, only Bill Clinton has come close to matching his charisma. What we commonly refer to as Reagan Democrats and Clinton Republicans were nothing more than run of the mill independents who flocked in droves to both men.
And while Reagan was often portrayed as stubborn when it came to his policies, the truth was that he was far more pragmatic than most of his supporters would have you believe. In deed the irony is that the far-Right in the guise of the Tea Party movement has appropriated much of Reagan’s rhetoric and steadfastness, but has failed to incorporate any of the give and take that defined most of his eight years in office.
In fact the one political figure in Washington who probably understands Reagan better than most isn’t a Republican at all. It’s Barack Obama. Though it may pain many conservatives to hear this, the message of hope and crafting of a vision for America to live out its promise comes not from the Right these days, but from the current occupant of the very same Oval office that Reagan held three decades earlier.
It’s no secret that President Obama is an admirer of Ronald Reagan. The styles and circumstances of both men are almost eerily similar. Both swept into power on the heals of economic chaos which saw the opposition party self destruct; both exuded an optimism for America’s future that connected on a visceral level with voters; and both suffered mid-term losses due to a sluggish economy and political unrest. Of course we could squabble about the philosophical differences that defined how each man viewed the role of government, but two things are undeniable: 1. Reagan’s success was the ultimate example of legend triumphing over actual accomplishment. He commanded the podium like no president since FDR, and he could construct a narrative that resonated with people better than any one alive; and 2. Obama is reading up on him fast and seems determined to follow in his footsteps.
Progressives should get this through their heads once and for all. Obama will adopt the Reagan strategy over the next two years to a tee. He will be the voice of reason and optimism surrounded by a sea of obstructionism and cynicism. He will be more than the adult in the classroom; he will be the one setting the agenda. Unlike the last two years, when he ceded much of the legislative process to the progressive flank of his party, look for Obama to take back the reigns and go for a more MOR approach. It will anger many on the Left, disarm many on the Right, and score political points with much of the Center. Like Reagan he will set the tone and reconstruct a narrative that will appeal to a majority of voters. And, like his Republican predecessor, he will prevail.
But getting back to the Gipper, yes, there were the contradictions. The man who came to Washington to end the era of big government actually ended up more than tripling the size of the national debt from $900 billion to $2.8 trillion; and the jury is still out on his signature accomplishment: that of ending communism in Russia. As precarious as the Cold War might have seemed, the fact was that both sides knew that if hostilities broke out directly between them, it would mean the end of everything. Mutually assured destruction – MAD – for all its imperfections worked. The world we live in now is far more treacherous and unstable than the world Reagan railed against during his tenure. Can anyone say with a degree of certainty that the demise of the Soviet Union was a good thing for world peace given what has taken place over the last twenty years?
But then, once more, we are nitpicking aren’t we? Politics, as we all know, is about the art of perception, not reality. And, while it would be politically expedient to denounce Ronald Reagan as a hypocrite whose policies helped gut the middle class, it would be equally dishonest not to give the man his due for redefining the presidency in a way that will long outlive all of his detractors and benefactors.
Love him, hate him, but never dismiss him. To do so, after all these years, would be foolish.