A few years back, Lewis Black – one of my favorite comedians – observed while touring Italy that Jesus Christ is really big there. Black compared Jesus to Coca Cola as an analogy for his popularity. For a foreigner visiting America over the next 18 months, the observation could be made here of Ronald Reagan – he’s really big here.
Yes, America is in that wonderful pre-election cycle where every would-be Republican presidential candidate is testing the waters for a run for the presidency in 2012 and each of these candidates will evoke the memory of Reagan and their claim to his legacy. Fact is, in 2011 America, Reagan’s popularity has never been higher. WWRD (or what would Reagan do?) is just about as popular as WWJD.
And just like Jesus, if Reagan were to miraculously come back from the dead and be available for this upcoming election, I seriously wonder if those that espouse their undying love for him would find him conservative enough to stand among those claiming his mantle.
Of course, this observation is made in a vacuum – understanding that Reagan has essentially been absent from the political landscape for some 20 plus years and has not been around to participate in the evolution of conservative politics. The Reagan that left office in January 1989 would not recognize the political arena of 2011.
Time for some full disclosure. 1984 was the first election I was old enough to vote in and I remember, happily, casting my ballot for Reagan. Watching the election returns that evening, and Reagan carrying the country in a landslide (only losing his opponent Walter Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia) was a testament to the man and America’s faith in his charismatic leadership. By 1988, the love affair with our president was waning. Reagan had somehow survived the Iran-Contra affair without being impeached and improving economy kept his approval ratings over the 50 per cent mark, but his presidency was being passed to his Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush.
During his eight years in office, Reagan spent nearly half of it with approval ratings below 50 per cent and his average approval rating during his presidency was just below 53 per cent. Since leaving office, Reagan has gone through a renaissance. Among conservative pollsters ranking the past presidents, Reagan continually finds himself among the top ten presidents to have held the office. To put Reagan’s approval ratings in to perspective, thus far into his presidency, Barack Obama has a 52 per cent average approval rating. Bill Clinton left office with a 55 per cent average approval rating – the same as Lyndon Johnson. (Gallup polls)
Reagan’s low points can be attributed to the 1982 recession and the corresponding 10.8 per cent unemployment the country faced and the Iran-Contra affair which clearly demonstrated a commander-in-chief that either deliberately broke the law of the country or highlighted a chief executive officer that was completely out of touch with the inner workings of his staff.
Additionally, despite being known for less government, tax-slashing president, under Reagan, taxes rose nearly every year. Reagan entered office with a national debt hovering just below $1 trillion, by the time he left that number had nearly tripled.
When President Kennedy introduced the Medicare program in 1961, Reagan, then doing his General Electric Theater program, denounced Medicare as a socialist program. As many of his contemporary conservatives have suggested, especially under the Health Care Reform Act of 2010, Reagan described Medicare as the end of freedom in America – “we will awake to find that we have socialism. And if you don’t do this, and if I don’t do it, one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
Funny thing is that America continued to be free after 1961 and in the eight years Reagan was president, never once did he attempt to dismantle Medicare – in fact it was one of the government programs he ensured was bolstered in every budget he presented congress.
As we continue our retrospective, revisionist look at the Reagan presidency on the 100th anniversary of his birth, let’s just try to keep his presidency and his policies in perspective. He was a good president – not amazing. He was a great communicator and made Americans feel better about themselves and their country, but confidence alone does not make one great (as American students are finding out on their SAT scores). Possibly one of the greatest attributes Reagan had – and the one that gets the least notice or attention – was his ability to compromise and work with his opposition party to accomplish important work during his presidency.
Seems that everyone wants a piece of Ronald Reagan these days. Every Republican candidate for office has to pledge allegiance to the Reagan legacy, arguing how they will adhere to a continuance of Reagan’s vision of government. Even Democrats give Reagan his due. President Obama took the latest Reagan biography with him to read over his holiday vacation; however, today’s political landscape has no value for compromise – a necessary ingredient for democratic governance! Those politicians viewed as being able to “reach across the aisle” and conduct legislation in a bipartisan manner are targeted by their own for removal. Look at the acrimony a long standing conservative senator such as Oren Hatch is facing in his upcoming election in Utah! Arlen Specter was forced to abandon the Republican Party as he was seen kvetching a couple times too often with his democrat peers.
Reagan understood that in order to effectively govern he had to work with the opposition – giving while taking. If he was a great president, it was this quality that set him apart. For Reagan to achieve whatever greatness he attained, he had to have his Tip O’Neill to lend to his success. Unfortunately, those that wish to lay claim to his legacy lack the fundamental understanding of that which made him effective. Who would play O’Neill in a Palin-Bachmann-Huckabee-Romney presidency? Could any of those candidates risk finding an O’Neill to work with?