Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ronald Reagan's Liberal Legacy (That's Right, Liberal)

The iconic Reagan photo: a liberal lion?

I used to look at the photo above and almost wretch at the undeserved legacy Ronald Reagan had accrued. The conservative movement wanted a hero and quite nearly manufactured one. For me, there was no decent legacy to speak of. Much of his history was either made-up or distorted, and it bothered me that conservatives, to this day, make much of the slim pickings any realist would call the Reagan legacy.

There was so much not to like about Reagan -- his anti-unionism, his war on drugs, his antipathy toward Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, his supple-side economics that truly was "voodoo" as his competitor-turned-vice-president called it, his massive defense buildup and subsequent growing deficits, his invasion of Grenada (why again?), and certainly his siding with some of the worst right-wing elements in Central America in an effort to counter leftist guerrillas. Plenty enough death and murder came out of those adventures.

There was plenty not to like. But there were the successes -- both in domestic politics as well as foreign policy, especially with the Soviet Union -- which were hard to dismiss. When I saw Reagan make his famous "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech, I begrudged him a truly remarkable visual, at least, accomplishment. He looked tough, he was tough, and you couldn't dismiss it as Hollywood bluster. He stood tall right then, and it was real, and it had an impact.

So, it's with, to some extent, true glee that I embrace a viewpoint I discovered while googling Reagan's accomplishments to refresh my memory of the Reagan years: Joshua Green, writing in Washington Monthly back in 2003, took a novel look at Reagan in terms of his liberal -- yes, liberal -- accomplishments. All of a sudden, my grudging acceptance of good things Reagan accomplished made sense. They were accomplishments, from my ideological vantage, I could only applaud. Now I could, knowing why I liked them: They were liberal, quite simply. Says Green:
Many of Reagan's actions that wound up furthering liberal ends were to some extent the result of the normal compromises of political office. The fact that his conservative biographers don't see fit to acknowledge these deviations is a clue that their aim is something besides an accurate depiction of the life and achievements of the 40th president. When conservatives mythologize the Reagan presidency as the golden era of conservatism, it's not Reagan that they're mythologizing, but conservatism.
The great success of Reagan's 1980 campaign was that it united the disparate strands of the conservative movement: supply-siders, libertarians, religious conservatives, foreign policy hawks, and big business. The fact that Reagan's presidency didn't accomplish anything approaching its seismic promise--the size of government grew, abortion remained legal, and entitlements still abounded--is one that his partisan biographers elide by focusing on what Reagan believed and said rather than on what he actually did. The imaginary Reagan who inhabits these books embodies the ideas on which all these groups can agree. His shining example helps maintain the coalition while putting pressure on current GOP politicians to hew to the hard-right ideal.
The real Reagan, on the other hand, would bring discord to the current conservative agenda. If you believe, as conservatives now do, that raising taxes is always wrong, then it's hard to admit that Reagan himself did so repeatedly. If you argue that the relative tax burden on low-income workers is too light, as the Bush administration does, then it does not pay to dwell on the fact that Reagan himself helped lighten that burden. If you insist, as many hardliners now do, that America is dangerously soft on communist China, then it is best to ignore Reagan's own softening toward the Soviet Union.
The whole of the Joshua Green article is stuffed with irony. Reagan raised taxes, saved Social Security by raising the payroll taxes, expanded government and the government payroll, tripled the national debt, and made nuclear peace treaties and other agreements that would make today's neocons shudder (as they did back then, as well).

We on the left who resist letting Reagan have his (manufactured) conservative legacy do so while giving short shrift to his liberal legacy. Maybe we can essentially speak of Reagan as bad, conservative Reagan and good, liberal Reagan. It's not made up of whole cloth, it is the remarkable truth of Ronald Reagan. Most of his conservative accomplishments were mostly talk, and many of his undeniable worthy accomplishments were carry-overs, perhaps, from the more liberal leanings of his younger years.

We get the Reagan each of us want, I suppose.

Kennedy had his Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon his China card, and
Reagan his summits with Mikhail. Credit where great is due.

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