The Ronald Reagan Obsession: Making Of a Myth

Wednesday would have been the 102nd birthday of former President Ronald Reagan. Had it not been for the many Republican tweets and Facebook posts on the subject, most people probably wouldn’t have noticed. Outside of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (and whoever is president at the time), Reagan seems to be the president whose birthday I hear the most about. Though there’s some bipartisan acknowledgement, it’s primarily a Republican phenomenon. But why does the GOP love Reagan so much? Republicans have a general memory of the Gipper, yet it’s important to distinguish the myths from realities.

Objectively, there are some fair and reasonable reasons why Republicans would continue to praise Reagan.

For starters, his predecessor President Jimmy Carter was largely panned. America was disenchanted and pessimistic, and Reagan spoke in a way that made Americans optimistic again. Historically, his “Morning in America” ad stands in sharp contrast to Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech (aka the "malaise" speech). When Reagan first came into office, for the first time in decades, American morale was low. Reagan made people feel hopeful again; even a generation later, people still remember that.

Reagan was the last popular two-term Republican presidential candidate, and one of the most popular presidents ever. He entered office with a 51% approval rating and left office eights years later with 63% approval. Outside of 1983, his approval rating never dipped below his disapproval rating.

He was the “Great Communicator” with charismatic sound bytes that people still can quote verbatim years later. Of note is perhaps a motto for the modern day Republican Party: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

He’s largely credited for ending the Cold War by forcing the Soviet Union to spend themselves to bankruptcy trying to keep up with the U.S. in the arms race, as well as through policies resulting in a détente between the two sides.

Reagan began and made popular the Republican trend of a staunch tax cuts-only policy and starving the government budget. In 1981, he passed the single largest tax cut in American history, despite America still being at war with the Soviet Union.

And every presidential candidate would envy his electoral success in the second election. 525 electoral votes to 13. That includes 58.8% of the popular vote. That's not an electoral landslide, it's an electoral avalanche.

But perhaps Republicans have also been unable to differentiate between Reagan the myth and Reagan the man. Would they really give so much praise to him if every Republican knew the other side of his persona?

For instance, Reagan was originally a Democrat who loved President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yes, the Democratic and liberal icon who changed the way Americans viewed the role of government from something that should be out of people’s way to something that could make people’s lives better. He voted for FDR all four times, and was grateful that the New Deal relief programs (read: government programs) provided steady work for both his father and his brother. Even after Reagan became a conservative Republican, he continued to praise FDR.

Perhaps this is why federal employment grew by 61,000 people under Reagan rather than shrank. Reagan expanded to the government by adding the Department of Veterans Affairs. If the goal was smaller government, Reagan largely failed.

During his first term as Governor of California, Reagan passed a $1 billion tax increase to resolve a massive state deficit. During his first term as president, Reagan also passed the single largest tax increase since 1968 when adjusted for inflation (yes, far larger than Obamacare). In fact, he raised taxes 11 times through his career.

Despite talking about his opposition to abortion, Reagan never introduced a bill to prevent them. More importantly, then-Governor Reagan actually signed a bill to legalize abortions in California. He also installed Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy who could have overturned Roe v. Wade but did not, despite opposition from the Christian right telling him to appoint others.

As president, Reagan also signed sweeping immigration reform into law that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants.

In 1983, a jihadist group that would eventually turn into Hezbollah bombed Beirut, Lebanon and killed 241 Americans in the process. Rather than retaliate, he ignored Beirut, broke with international law and invaded Grenada arguing that he was trying to stop communism there. The little Caribbean island was conquered in two days. It was enough to change the headlines past the Beirut bombing, but completely ignored the problem in the Middle East.

So should Republicans still revere Ronald Reagan? It’s a tough call, but probably not.

It's difficult to understand why he should get praise after doing so many things that are an affront to the modern day hard-lined Republican platform. If he were a candidate today, Reagan would almost undoubtedly be vilified by the Tea Party and fail some of the most important Republican litmus tests.

From taxes to abortion to immigration, Reagan the man has a lot at odds with Reagan the myth. Maybe he would succeed in communicating in a way that would make Republicans look past his record, but that seems to be the only chance he would really have. He may have been a Republican icon in his day, but if you took Reagan then and brought him into now, he could really only play one on TV.