Politics do not stop at the ballot box. Elections and presidents are evaluated and ranked for decades later. And these evaluations in turn motivate and influence future elections. Many of these evaluations take place in the academic world, which decides which presidents to focus on and which presidents succeeded. The media and political pundits pick up and echo these judgments.
Not surprisingly, conservatives lose this legacy battle. Think about it. What Republican presidents in the twentieth century compare, in the public eye, with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, all legacy Democratic presidents? Possibly Teddy Roosevelt, but not Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower, or Richard Nixon. Not even Ronald Reagan, possibly the most consequential president of them all.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
Reagan is ignored in the liberal academic world. No nationally-known authors or scholars study him as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. studied Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, Robert Caro serialized Lyndon Johnson, and David McCullough venerated Truman. Since Reagan’s death, despite voluminous new documents that reveal Reagan’s mastery as president, the academic world shuns him.
Even worse, conservatives lose the legacy battle in contemporary politics. Not only Democrats, but Republicans marginalize Reagan. In recent months one conservative pundit after the other has called upon the Republican Party to get over Ronald Reagan. They say he was a man of his times but the times have changed. Limited government, low taxes, personal responsibility, family values, strong defense, secure borders, and standing by oppressed people around the world are out of date.
The American people want compassionate and effective, not limited, government; they want people to pay their fair share of taxes; they are tired of military interventions abroad; they embrace immigration whether legal or illegal; and they expect other countries to be exceptionalist just as America is exceptionalist, picking up the falling banners of freedom as American pulls back from the world.
Meanwhile, Democrats stand behind their legacy presidents. When have you heard Democrats say they have to get over Franklin Roosevelt? Or when have you heard Democrats say that the policies of the 1930s—Social Security, massive government fiscal spending, welfare programs, especially national health care—are no longer relevant? Democrats understand the legacy game; and because Republicans don’t, Republicans compete with Democrats on Democratic turf. How can government be made more compassionate and effective, more sympathetic to women, more generous to immigrants, more self-effacing in foreign policy, and more modest about the virtues of our own democracy and U.S. leadership in the world?
This dismissal of the Reagan legacy is a monumental mistake. The idea that Reagan’s heritage is obsolete does not hold water. Let’s take a look at the Republican legacy in each of the contested areas.
Limited government should be a slam-dunk. It is the legacy issue for Republicans. Since the time of Thomas Jefferson, Republicans have stood for limited government, not small government per se but limited government relative to civil society. The reason is simple. Civil society, not government, is the wellspring of liberty. Free individuals take care of themselves through families, neighborhoods, markets, churches, and local communities. Then they take care of government. And if they can’t take care of themselves, what right do they have to take care of others? Jefferson memorialized this point in his first inaugural: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?”
Of course, government should be effective. But civil society with competition is much more effective than bureaucracy without competition. And the last thing we want, if we care about freedom, is an effective government that is large. Hence limited government is more relevant than ever when the central government’s share of GDP has jumped from 19 to 25 percent, as it has under the Obama Democrats.
Compassionate government is also a no-brainer. If you have any government at all, it should be compassionate. No one quarrels with that. But is it compassionate to encourage dependency by bringing more and more citizens onto the government’s rolls? That’s the point about makers and takers. All Americans support some taking, for the poorest and neediest. But do we support a government that celebrates taking, as Obama did in his second inaugural address?
Definitely not. We celebrate a government that creates incentives for people, churches, corporations, and local communities to make their own way and then to take care of others, a government that makes the private sector fair and nondiscriminatory but does not replace it. It’s not in the interest of the common good to create a national, one-size-fits-all healthcare program; rather, it’s an admission of defeat that free people can’t improve a private health care system that already serves the needs of many and can easily provide for the few who can’t help themselves.
Republicans have no reason to be embarrassed on women’s issues. Yes, there are some politicians that embarrass themselves on these issues, but they exist on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, Democratic presidents—FDR, Kennedy, and Clinton—have sketchier histories with women than Republican presidents. Here, again, Reagan’s legacy stands out: he created an economy that in three decades from 1980-2010 churned out 50 million new jobs; women (and immigrants), many coming into the work force for the first time, filled those jobs.
This economic boom, during which the U.S. and world economies grew steadily at over 3 percent a year (and that includes the recession years of 2008-09), is Reagan’s greatest legacy. It was built on lower taxes, sound monetary policy, less regulation, and freer trade. Democrats discredit these policies for promoting greed and inequality and, at the same time, they celebrate the economic prosperity of the Clinton years. But Clinton did little more than confirm Reagan policies of limited government and free trade (NAFTA and WTO). This is proof positive of how consistently Republicans lose the legacy battle.
No single issue is said to be more responsible for the Republican defeat in 2012 than immigration and the Hispanic vote. And facts are facts. Hispanics soundly rejected the Republican candidate. The confusion is about why. It’s not because Republicans are anti-immigrant; it’s because they’re pro-rule of law. Immigrants come to this country because its laws are reliable and grant greater and more equal opportunity to more nationalities, races and religions than any other country in the world. Now what if immigrants start coming to this country by first breaking the law? Don’t they destroy the very country they wish to adopt?
That’s not saying that immigration laws have always been fair. But change them if you don’t like them. Don’t break them. And if you do break them, expect to pay a price (a fine on parents to gain legal status), and don’t ask for special advantages over those who obeyed the law (stand in line for citizenship). And, yes, insist that the country enforce its laws, at the border as well as within the business community, because a country with good and stable laws is precisely the one that attracts immigrants in the first place. It may be tough love, but it is better than the Democratic alternative of false love, which draws immigrants into a dependency society that kills initiative and bankrupts the country.
You don’t hear much about it, but Ronald Reagan probably did more to end the Cold War than Mikhail Gorbachev. Remember the 1970s when the Soviet Union deployed theater nuclear weapons (SS-20s) in eastern Europe, established naval bases in Vietnam, sent military advisers and arms to Angola and Mozambique, supported wars of liberation in central and South America, and invaded Afghanistan? At the time America was in retreat, suffering a loss of exceptionalist will because the Vietnam War had worn the country out.
What did Reagan do? Against considerable domestic and foreign opposition, he rallied the country to grow the economy, rebuilt its defenses, deployed INF weapons to counter Soviet SS-20s, backed freedom fighters to counter Soviet interventions in the third world, and negotiated with the Soviet Union to reduce offensive and expand defensive arms, and widened participation in the free market world economy.
Is any of this legacy relevant today? That I have to ask is further proof that Republicans are losing the legacy battle. Once again the American economy is sagging, and America is retreating because the public is worn out by Iraq and Afghanistan. The president declares that American leadership is no more exceptional than French or British leadership, and hence we can lead from behind and wait for others to step up as America steps back—in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere.
It may work for a little while but it will never last. Every time America has pulled back from the world, the world has turned around and whacked America. Think of the retreat after World War I; the attack on Pearl Harbor followed. After World War II and UN hopes for cooperation with the Soviet Union, the Berlin Blockade followed. And after Vietnam, the Soviet deployment off SS-20s and invasion of Afghanistan followed. As America retreats today, war is not receding in the Middle East or South Asia; it just coils its springs to whack us again, at home (Boston marathon) as well as abroad (Benghazi).
The Republican legacy on all these fronts—size of government, job growth, women’s and immigrants’ rights, and global leadership—is overwhelmingly powerful. How is it possible that that legacy remains obscured? Conservatives have a lot more to think about than just the last election.