Today’s Courier Herald Column:
One of my younger Democratic friends asked a question earlier this week that seems relatively simple on its surface but the answer is a bit more complex. He, in his early twenties, wanted to understand the Republican fixation on Ronald Reagan.
Folks like myself some two decades older than him can remember the Reagan years well, but those of his age likely have Bill Clinton as their first frame of political reference. They’ve also never experienced a cold war, severe inflation, an Iranian hostage crisis, or prolonged gas lines.
Other Republican friends of mine took a chance to answer, offering that the other presidents that followed just haven’t been that good. Another, somewhat longer answer, included:
“Pre-Reagan, conservatives were laughed at, publicly mocked and dismissed as irrelevant. Reagan took on what was then the “establishment” in the GOP, and made it first acceptable, then desirable to be a conservative. In addition to two landslide victories, he gets credit for breaking up the Soviet Union, fixing the economy, cutting taxes, restoring military strength, and refusing to let what is now called the “mainstream media” get in his way.”
Those were certainly accomplishments that seal Reagan’s place in history. But the continuation of his answer hits much more closely to the answer of why roughly a quarter century after Reagan left office, he continues to be revered by Republicans who are still looking for another version of him to step up.
“Additionally, he was ‘likeable,’ warm, affable, with good sense of humor and an actor’s timing. He used his political skills to advance an agenda that made people feel good about being Americans, rather than having to apologize for it.”
In a word, Ronald Reagan represented optimism. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, Reagan was a cheerful presence who told Americans things were going to be O.K. He assured us that the capacity was within us to make our country and the world a better place. He told us that we no longer had to rely on a distant, unresponsive, and ineffective government to solve our problems. He rejected the idea of malaise.
While others were saying that America’s best days were behind us, that it was time we learned to settle for less, Reagan countered that is was “Morning in America” and our best days were ahead of us. He was the original bearer of hope and change.
After eight years of Reagan, inflation was tamed, gas prices were cheap, unemployment was down, and military strength was up. Most importantly, Americans believed in America again.
Reagan spent his entire political career calling America a “shining city on a hill”, decades before he would become President. On the day he was elected, many doubted that description was an accurate description of our country. Reagan’s farewell address sealed the acceptance of that vision.
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still.”
Reagan was not petty, and treated his adversaries with respect and challenged them with good humor. One of his best lines about liberals was that “it isn’t what they believe; it’s just that so much of what they believe isn’t true.” Yet he negotiated head to head with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, as well as Democrats in Congress. Reagan, after all, knew for him to pass his agenda, he would have to do so with the support of Democrats in Congress.
He sought not to divide, but to unite a fractured nation. The result was a re-election with him carrying 49 states. The thought of this country being so united politically less than 3 decades later seems like pure fantasy today.
Each Republican candidate makes a nod to Reagan in their own way, but none are Reagan and there will never be another. He was unique, and he rose to the specific challenges of his time. Politicians of today and tomorrow need not replicate Reagan’s policies to enjoy electoral success. All however, on both sides of the aisle, would do well to emulate his outlook and his optimism.