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Rethinking The Reagan Mystique

Steven F. Hayward is F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989, forthcoming in August from CrownForum.

In the New York Times this weekend, John Harwood revisited the debate between conservatives and Republicans over whether it is time to "rethink the Reagan mystique." Does anyone really think the major media outlets covering this intramural argument really have conservative success in mind?

Now, that's not to say that the argument isn't a worthy one or should be suppressed - NRO has hosted some fruitful discussion on the issue. But Americans should approach such stories with a grain of salt, since many of them fail to get a few basic things straight.

Yes, I have several big dogs in this fight. My copious (and revisionist) narrative history of the Reagan presidency is coming out in August, featuring a special emphasis on the difficult domestic-policy story, rather than the dramatic Cold War story that is easier to tell - and I hope all NRO readers will rush out and buy it. The book is not all cheerleading for a happier time for our movement: It contains a number of criticisms of Reagan. But the criticisms I'm hearing now seem wide of the mark, though - when they're not simply wrong.

There was no Reagan "mystique." Study him closely and you see that he worked very hard at becoming a good politician, and part of that hard work was invested in concealing just how hard he worked at it. Too many conservatives think it suffices simply to call themselves "Reagan Republicans" and mouth a few optimistic generalities (fill in your least favorite radio talk-show host here.)

Now, I hate to disagree with David Frum, who offered some of the earliest cogent criticisms of the failures of the Reagan years in Dead Right, but he capitulates to the conventional wisdom when he says that "the most dangerous legacy Reagan bequeathed his party was his legacy of cheerful indifference to detail." I sentence Brother Frum to a close reading of Reagan's diaries, and perhaps a few days in the Reagan Library reading the declassified transcripts of White House meetings, all of which decisively refute this tired cliché. It's clear that Reagan was hardly disinterested in the daily details of the 1986 tax-reform process, and he was an active participant in every annual-budget fight. Reagan was also intimately involved in the arms-for-hostages debacle - not to his credit, of course. (In my forthcoming book, I sum up one installment of the affair thus: "Through all the murkiness of the decisions made throughout the entire affair, however, one fact is clear - the Iran arms-for-hostages initiative carried on because Ronald Reagan wanted it to.") Reagan may have ignored the EPA, HUD - make your own list of rightly ignored favorites - but that redounds to his credit; I think it was Wellington who said that sensible men concentrate on the essential things.

Unfamiliarity with the historical facts on Reagan is one thing. Reshaping them is quite another. I was startled by Harwood's quote from Indiana governor Mitch Daniels: "I don't use [Reagan] publicly as a reference point." Well, fine; but back in 1989, Daniels said, "The Reagan years will be for conservatives what the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience - a conservative Camelot." Well, which is it? Has Daniels changed his mind - or has Harwood done a little reshaping of his own here by quoting Daniels selectively?

Back in 1989, Daniels added this: "At the same time, no lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration." This is why I have argued here on NRO that it is precisely the failures and shortcomings of the Reagan years that should be the focus of our debate; here I'm probably close to the same page as Brother Frum, but we differ on the specifics. Frum, in his most recent Bloggingheads exchange with Brink Lindsey, went so far as to say that Republicans might have been better off had neither Barry Goldwater nor Reagan been nominated in 1964 and 1980, respectively. (I think he's just trying to test the efficaciousness of my new blood-pressure medicine - and give Rush an embolism.)

Such debates can get rancorous in a hurry - which is what I think the Left and the media would like to see. Let me shift ground slightly and challenge the Reagan critics this way: Why do we study and praise Lincoln or Churchill? Because we think we're going to see "another" Lincoln or Churchill? Of course not: We study them for their example of practical political judgment. Britain didn't get another Churchill - they got Thatcher, for whom Churchill's examples (even his mistakes, such as his imprudent Hayek-inspired "Gestapo" speech of July 1945) made a strong impression. We are not going to see "another" Reagan. But we can and should learn from a close study of the man, and apply usable lessons to different circumstances.

Such a prospect seems remote at present, with Democrats ascendant and led by a charismatic young president. Political success for the GOP, we are sometimes told, will require adopting policies closer to those of Barack Obama than to Ronald Reagan. Here again, history is instructive.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover wrote in their book about the 1984 American presidential election, "Democrats preferred not to face the evidence that their guiding light of half a century - the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt and its successor mutations from Truman through Carter and Mondale - had been all but snuffed out by the voters as the preferred framework for governmental policy at the national level." Today, FDR and the New Deal are back with a vengeance, of course: Judging from his books, Obama clearly considers FDR a model and inspiration. In other words, conservatism finds itself in a place roughly analogous to liberalism's 25 years ago. Reaganism -in a modified or even high-octane form - might make a comeback, too.

We must also rightly judge the role of chance and contingency in human affairs and political fortunes. Brother Frum writes: "It was not Goldwater who made Reagan possible. It was Carter. Had Carter governed more successfully, the Goldwater disaster would have been just a disaster, with no silver lining. And there was nothing about the Goldwater disaster that made the Carter failure more necessary, more inevitable." There is something to this, as Reagan himself acknowledged. He told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Grenada invasion in 1983, "If Jimmy Carter had sent in two more helicopters to Iran, he'd be giving you this briefing right now."

We can apply this same lesson to Lincoln, Churchill, FDR, and others who come to mind. Only thoroughgoing Machiavellians think humans can control chance or fate; the rest of us should follow Churchill's counsel to "assume that the favorable and adverse chances equate, and then eliminate them both from the calculation." To which I would add that, like Reagan (and Churchill), I do not believe that Chance is indifferent to human excellence.

By Steven F. Hayward
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online.