More than two decades after he left office, the public is still debating Ronald Reagan's legacy.
Nearly 23 years after he left office, and in the year when he would have turned 100, what exactly is Ronald Reagan’s legacy today?
President Obama praises him – so much so that Time magazine called it a “Bromance” between the conservative president elected in 1980 and the liberal president elected in 2008.
Conservatives tend to scoff at the praise and suspect the real message is: great delivery, bad policies. Perhaps. There isn’t a lot of handy comparisons to be made between Obama’s agenda and Reagan’s, although it’s noteworthy that both candidates won big and then got into office at a time when the economy was taking a nosedive; Reagan recovered by 1984 and won one of the biggest landslides in our nation’s history, taking 49 states and 59 percent of the vote. The Obama administration is clearly hoping that the economy shifts fast enough to boost the president’s re-election chances, although today’s jobs report – that the nation grew a paltry 36,000 jobs in January – won’t help.
More interesting, I think, is Reagan’s legacy on the field of political analysis. His eight years in office created a series of theories that are popular today among political analysts – what I like to call “Brilliant Conventional Wisdom.” It’s not really that brilliant, and in some ways is pretty lazy thinking, and hardly, I think, amounts to wisdom. And boy is it conventional.
It also ran into serious problems in 2008, and could again in 2012. But first, let’s take a look at the definition of Brilliant Conventional Wisdom.
It started, I would say, not with Reagan’s stunning victory in 1980 over President Jimmy Carter, when the former Hollywood actor turned California governor carried 44 states in a mandate that few political observers had anticipated. Reagan’s 1984 re-election was even more sweeping, and confirmed the high hopes of conservatives – and dark fears of liberals – that our nation had moved closer to the idea that individual initiative, rather than activist government, was the way to go. Imagine a president who actually questioned whether government programs were even needed?
Still, he was such a great speaker, critics pointed out. What is they liked the guy but didn’t really believe in the message?
Then came the 1988 election. The former governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, won the Democratic party nomination and started the fall campaign with a 17 point lead over Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush. In the end, though, it was Bush who won, carrying 40 states.
That was the start, from my estimation, of Brilliant Conventional Wisdom, which states: “Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 ushered in an era of staunch conservatism that hasn’t yet abated.” So in other words, as the conservative party, Republicans had become the natural majority party. They appeared to have a lock on a majority of votes in the electoral college. Competitive elections, it would appear, are over.
I sometimes suspect the political analysts were trying to compensate for their failure to predict the strong Reagan or Bush victories. Few of them, as I recall, pointed out deeper wisdom such as: Carter’s presidency was viewed as a disaster by so many and his approval ratings were lower than today’s mortgage interest rates .. or that Dukakis was a bumbling candidate who managed to get himself videotaped riding in a tank … or that Walter Mondale (Reagan’s 1984 opponent) was the man who got up at his convention and promised he’d raise taxes …
I’ve always said, with opponents like this …
And I was a skeptic, even then, of the notion that Republicans had figured out how to lock up elections. Even when the economy hit the skids in the early 1990s and Bush flip flopped on his pledge not to raise taxes, all too many political commentators viewed him as a safe bet for re-election in 1992. That was certainly the case when Bush was challenged by Bill Clinton, the governor of a small state (Arkansas) bogged by controversies (I didn’t inhale, Slick Willie, Draft dodging, etc.) Who worries about tanking economies when you’ve got such weak opposition?
The fact that Clinton carried 32 states and Bush, an incumbent president, managed to get just 38 percent of the national vote – about the same as poor George McGovern in 1972 – left a lot of those Brilliant Conventional Wisdom folks scratching their heads again. How did Clinton win if the Republicans were the natural majority party and the GOP had a lock on the electoral college?
So that led to Brilliant Conventional Wisdom #2, which states: “Democrats don’t win elections. But occasionally Republicans can lose one.” In other words, Clinton didn’t win because Americans embraced a leftie agenda. No, they were punishing Bush for not steering the economy down the right path, for raising taxes, for not being loyal to his conservative base, etc. Clinton’s was an accidental presidency, they said – a theory that seemed confirmed when Republicans took back the House and Senate in the 1994 midterm elections. At that point, Brilliant Conventional Wisdom seemed confirmed: we were back to square one, a safely conservative, pro-Republican nation, and Clinton would be toast in 1996, particularly if the GOP ran a swifty like, say, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole as his challenger.
Well, as it turns out, the party did … and Clinton won, easily. So that reaffirmed Brilliant Conventional Wisdom #2: Clinton didn’t win, it’s just that Dole lost. Ever notice that when Republicans lose, it’s because they ran awful campaigns, but when Democrats lose … it was a stunning ideological victory?
I’ve never been a big believer in Brilliant Conventional Wisdom, in part because I don’t think a two-party nation will ever see one party become truly dominant, and also because I don’t see us as being, to use a really worn out phrase, a “Right of Center nation.”
For one thing, post-Reagan, ideological lines have been hopelessly blurred. George H.W. Bush raised taxes. Bill Clinton signed welfare reform and NAFTA. George W. Bush gave us the Prescription Drug Benefit and TARP. Obama just signed an extension of the Bush tax cuts. Which is the liberal and which the conservative?
I also get skeptical when the “Right of Center nation” gang points to polls showing that 40 percent of Americans define themselves as conservative, and just 20 percent as liberals. The 20 percent I believe; pure liberalism – the belief that the government can cure such sweeping social problems as poverty – hasn’t been in vogue since Lyndon Johnson was signing the Great Society bills into law back in 1965.
But liberals are easy to define. They like government, think it does good things, and want more of it, particularly for the poorest among us.
Conservatism, on the other hand, is much harder to define – and is a real mixed bag. I know libertarian conservatives who really dislike most government, and don’t want it to do much of anything.
I know business conservatives who mostly dislike government, too, but don’t much mind when government can do nice things for the business community.
I know social conservatives who really, really like government. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, is a classic example. Government is good for banning abortion, for example, but not so bad for providing health care for the poor – something he supported when he signed into law a tax hike to pay for it. Conservative doesn’t always mean anti-government.
I know conservatives who are Pro-Choice, others who are pro-gay marriage. I know conservatives who love Social Security and wouldn’t think of scaling back those annual cost of living increases. I know conservatives who want to regulate business, who want to give state and federal money to religious organizations, who want to spend more on defense. Ron Paul has yet to take over the GOP.
With such a wide range of opinions, no wonder so many people consider themselves “conservative”: the very ideology is kind of like play dough; you can roll it and stretch it and make it into whatever you want.
Liberalism, as I said, is easy to define. Conservatism is like soda: you get lots of varieties to pick from.
With that in mind, I don’t consider us a conservative or right of center nation – or even an ideological one. I’m guessing true, genuine, limited government conservatives amount to the same 20 percent as liberals do, with the remaining 60 percent of us – myself included – floating hopelessly in the mushy middle, attracted to this issue, turned off by that one, repelled by another. I call it the anti-ideology; when you get a litmus test group, chances are there’s a few of their tests you flunk, so you move on.
Those centrists, I’d say, are more pragmatic than ideological: they want to know what works. They want to see results. That’s why so many of them turned away from the GOP in 2008, when some commentators thought a candidate as liberal as Obama never had a chance. He did.
And that’s why the voters turned away from Obama and the Democrats when they abandoned job creation for health care reform. They didn’t deliver. So they lost.
Where are we headed in 2012? I suspect that those masses of centrist, non-ideological voters will still be looking for results, for good solutions, for examples of policies that work. Whether it’s Obama calling for investments in education or high speed rail to spur the economy, or Republicans calling for deep cuts in our national debt, time will tell.
But again, Brilliant Conventional Wisdom needs to be retired. We’re not a deeply conservative nation, particularly when you consider how much big government we not only tolerate, but sometimes demand.
Reagan didn’t usher in a new era of conservatism; we’re still too pragmatic a nation for that.
Instead, he gave people something that government had been failing to do for a long time: feel a sense of hope. Of encouragement. That his “Morning in America” was the real thing, not a political sales pitch.
When was the last time you felt that way when a politician was telling you to be upbeat?
Probably 1988.

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