Reeves: Republicans still hold true to Reagan ideals

richard_reeves.jpgIn conjunction with the upcoming Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium, CCLP is set to release a new white paper by Senior Fellow Richard Reeves on the construction of Ronald Reagan’s legacy. Reeves argues that the Great Communicator’s mark on American politics is still being felt today, as Reagan remains the “nucleus” of the modern conservative movement.

“American conservatism was constructed like an atom,” says Reeves in an article in USA Today. “You had all of these energetic electrons, as it were, spinning wildly around — the religious, financial, nationalistic conservatives, and the old-fashioned New York banker conservatives — often despising each other. But the one thing they could agree on, the nucleus of that atom, was Ronald Reagan,” he said.

While political analysts agree that Reagan’s international and diplomatic endeavors were a success, even in the present day, others continue the former president’s economic and tax policies, often referred to as “Reaganomics.”

As shown in the report by Reeves, no matter the stance that citizens have on Reagan, his policies still continue to be influential and important in the arena of modern discourse. President Obama even cites Reagan as role model for his presidency.

The Ronald Reagan Centennial Academic Symposium took place on February 1 and 2, with events at the University of Southern California as well as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif, featuring a panel discussion led by Tom Brokaw.

A full schedule of the psat events can be found here.

Below is a copy of the article on the Reagan Centennial featuring Reeves.

Ronald Reagan: A ‘folklore’ president who led a revolution

By Susan Page, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — No surprise, perhaps, that the American president who came to fame in Hollywood would have a centennial celebration with splash.

Ronald Wilson Reagan — born Feb. 6, 1911, in Tampico, Ill., — led a tidal wave that set the United States on a more conservative course that is still influencing politics today.

legacyx.jpgPresident Reagan takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger on Jan. 20, 1981.

On his watch, the Cold War moved toward its end, taxes and regulations were slashed, and federal spending priorities were reordered. In his wake, the nation’s political geography was reshaped as he united a fractured Republican Party, drew a new breed of voters to its side and forced even the Democratic Party to adjust.

“An overshadowing political presence in his times,” presidential scholar Fred Greenstein concludes, though Reagan might not recognize the harsh partisanship that now prevails in Washington.

Over the next 12 months, there will be academic symposiums, a statue unveiled in Grosvenor Square in London, a Catholic Mass of Thanksgiving in Krakow, Poland, and a National Portrait Gallery exhibition in Washington. The Super Bowl on Feb. 6 will air a video tribute before the game begins, and about 16,000 high school football games across the country in September will start with the toss of a commemorative Reagan coin.

Beyond leading an ideological revolution, Reagan was a likable, engaging figure comfortable in pop culture. He told hoary jokes, passed around jelly beans at White House meetings, laughed about his past as a B-movie actor and often ate dinner with wife Nancy in the White House family quarters with plates on folding trays as they watched TV.

That unpretentious sense of humor and humanity help account for his continuing appeal, including among some young people, Jordin Sparks says. The pop singer, whose career was launched in 2007 when she became the youngest winner of American Idol at age 17, is on the centennial celebration’s National Youth Leadership Committee with Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers band and others.

Sparks hopes to perform — perhaps the national anthem or God Bless America– at a concert Feb. 5 that will mark the opening of the renovated Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Now 21, Sparks was born after Reagan left office, but she heard her parents talk with admiration about the former president. “I just thought that he was really, really amazing,” she said in an interview.

Might he have been a fan of the early years of American Idol, if not for his advanced Alzheimer’s
before his death in 2004?

She is sure he would have appreciated it, especially given his show-biz roots. “I think he would have done funny cameos on the show,” Sparks speculates. “Or maybe been a judge.”

A ‘turning of a chapter’

Thirty years ago, Reagan was sworn in as president of a downbeat nation that elected him despite concerns about his age — at 69, he would be the oldest president in history at inauguration — and his ideology. Was he too hawkish toward the Soviet Union, too hostile to social safety-net programs?

Now his estimation by presidential scholars and the American people continues to rise, though skeptics say acolytes exaggerate his legacy.

In a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, nearly one-third of Americans predict history will judge him an
outstanding president, double the number who held that view when he left office. Among modern
presidents, only John Kennedy gets higher ratings.

A C-SPAN survey of 65 historians in 2009 ranked Reagan near the top tier of presidents, 10th of 42. A Siena College poll of 238 presidential scholars in 2010 put him in the middle range, 18th of 43, though he ranked in the top five for communication skills, leadership of his party — and luck.

His two terms marked “a clear turning of a chapter” from the Great Society liberalism of the 1960s to a new conservatism, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says. And his personal connection to many Americans endures.

Adding to his story: surviving an assassination attempt with reassuring humor two months after his inauguration in 1981, and leaving the public scene in 1994 with a letter to the American people revealing his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

He was 93 when he died June 5, 2004.

“He’s become a folklore president,” says Brinkley, who edited Reagan’s diaries. “He’s as much Buffalo Bill or Kit Carson as he is Harry Truman or Lyndon Johnson.”

Admirers credit Reagan with ending the Cold War — he both increased defense spending by a third and embraced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — and reviving the economy. After the unhappy tenures of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, Reagan returned a sense of optimism and buoyancy to the White House.

“No matter what political disagreements you may have had with President Reagan — and I certainly had my share — there is no denying his leadership in the world, or his gift for communicating his vision for America,” President Obama says in an appreciation written for USA TODAY.

“It was a hell of a record,” says James Baker, who ran the campaign of Reagan’s chief rival in the 1980 GOP primaries and then became Reagan’s White House chief of staff and Treasury secretary. “What I mean is, you did have 25 years of sustained, non- inflationary growth. You had a restoration of the country’s pride and confidence in itself. You had peace. What more could you ask for?”

Since Reagan left the White House in 1989, just about every Republican presidential hopeful has
sought to claim his mantle, including those weighing bids for next year’s nomination.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has co-produced a documentary of Reagan’s life called Rendezvous With Destiny; he’ll screen it in Tampico at the town’s centennial celebration of its most famous son.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin routinely quotes Reagan in her Facebook postings. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence’s paean to American exceptionalism recalls Reagan’s oft-repeated description of the United States as a “shining city on a hill.”

A hero, but not a model?

To this day, politicians who have succeeded Reagan cite him as a hero — although they don’t necessarily follow his style of politics as a model.

Reagan said the GOP should be a “big tent” that tolerated opposing views, and he cultivated positive relationships with Democrats, often noting he used to be one himself. Friends and former aides say he wouldn’t have endorsed the unyielding, take-no-prisoners tactics that now dominate.

In today’s more contentious times, Republican officeholders in Alaska, Utah, Delaware and across the country last year faced primary challengers who argued they hadn’t been sufficiently conservative, and House and Senate leaders have imposed a strict party-line discipline against Obama’s major legislative initiatives.

“This hard, no-compromise is not the Reagan approach,” Brinkley says. “He was the person who
ended conservatism as being ideologically frozen, and he became the genial, pragmatic conservative. He gave a smiley face to the conservative movement. That’s why Reaganism is so powerful.”

“Given the current poisonous and partisan political environment we live in, I doubt Ronald Reagan
could be elected today,” says Mark McKinnon, a strategist whose clients include past two Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and George W. Bush. “He was a proud and strong Republican, but he understood that in order to get anything done he had to work across the aisle, which he did very effectively.”

Reagan’s victory in 1980 helped sweep in a GOP majority in the Senate, but he faced a Democratic- controlled House throughout his White House tenure. Before key legislative votes, his presidential archives show him making dozens of phone calls a day to congressional Democrats, schmoozing a bit before asking for their vote.

If they acceded, he would jot “mission accomplished” on the call sheet.

Some conservative activists bristled at the compromises he made, at one point labeling Reagan
a turncoat for cutting a deal that raised taxes.

“I can’t tell you how many times I would be sitting there in the Oval with him, discussing where we were on some issue, and he’d say, ‘I’d rather get 80% of what I want rather than go over the cliff with my flag flying,’ ” Baker said in an interview. “He was so pragmatic.”

Some current-day Republican leaders argue the country’s predicament is more perilous now, making the sort of concessions that Reagan made no longer appropriate.

“This is a different kind of time in our country than when Reagan came in,” says House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “This is a time when, I think, instead of muddling the different philosophies between the two parties we need to accentuate them, to give the country a real clear choice … to give the country an alternative choice to the path we’re on.”

Still, Reagan remains the most revered figure in the Republican Party in particular and conservatism in general. Even Obama may be looking for lessons in Reagan’s rebound from midterm setbacks in 1982 and his re-election in 1984: The president carried Lou Cannon’s President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime with him to his recent vacation in Hawaii.

“American conservatism was constructed like an atom,” says author Richard Reeves, who will deliver a paper on Reagan’s legacy at a February academic
symposium co-sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library and the University of Southern California, where he teaches.

“You had all of these energetic electrons, as it were, spinning wildly around — the religious
conservatives, the financial conservatives, the nationalistic conservatives, the old-fashioned New
York banker conservatives and what not — and often despising each other. The New York banker didn’t want to have anything to do with Jerry Falwell. But the one thing they could agree on, the nucleus of that atom, was Ronald Reagan,” he said.

“I had thought Reaganism would lose its magnetic power, but that actually has not happened. The party is still organized around Ronald Reagan because that’s the only thing that some of these people agree on.”

‘Borrow-and-spend’ Republicans

Count Reeves as a skeptic when it comes to the arguments of those who would carve Reagan’s
visage on Mount Rushmore. His symposium paper is titled “The Last Campaign” — a reference to efforts by the former president’s most devoted supporters to exalt his legacy.

Reeves says Reagan’s record is sometimes at odds with the reputation they want to remember.

“Reagan made his reputation on attacking ‘tax-and- spend’ Democrats … but in fact he invented
‘borrow-and-spend’ Republicans,” leaving office with record-setting budget deficits, Reeves says.

He calls Reagan a “cut-and-run president” when it came to asserting military might abroad. The
president pulled U.S. peacekeeping forces out of Lebanon in 1983 after a terrorist bombing of Marine barracks left 241 U.S. servicemembers dead.

There was scandal, too. In the most notorious, senior aides maneuvered to sell arms to Iran in
hopes of winning the release of U.S. hostages being held in the region, then illegally funneled the profits to Nicaraguan guerrillas. Reagan denied knowledge of the full scheme, a defense that raised questions about his oversight of his administration.

“I don’t think Ronald Reagan was a great president, but I think he was a great leader, and he was great at being president,” says Reeves, author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination. “He led people to a certain place, and we are now either reaping the benefits or paying the price of all that.”

George Shultz, secretary of State in the Reagan Cabinet, sees echoes of the 40th president in some of today’s debates. He notes that Reagan shocked many of his supporters by trying to negotiate an end to nuclear weapons with Gorbachev, although their talks at a 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, collapsed. Today, Obama and others cite a nuclear- free world as an aspiration.

Reagan “was capable of having a vision, of having a dream,” Shultz said in an interview. He thinks his friend would have relished this year’s celebrations: “He wouldn’t be overimpressed, but he’d like it. I think you have to realize — he was fun.”

During the flight back to Washington after an exhausting trip to South and Central America,
Reagan had spied an exhausted Shultz sound asleep in his seat on Air Force One. The president fetched the White House photographer and posed for a photo that showed him apparently beseeching Shultz.

Weeks later, Reagan sent his unsuspecting secretary of State a copy of the photo with this inscription: “But George, I have to talk to you — the Russians are calling!!”

A quarter-century later, Shultz dissolves into laughter at the presidential prank.

The original article by Susan Page can be found on the USA Today website.