Ronald Reagan, The Optimist

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.


  1. ricstewart says:

    While Republicans are worshipping at the Church of Reagan, they would do well to take a refresher course on Reagan’s views on immigration:

    “One thing is certain in this hungry world; no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.” -Ronald Reagan.

  2. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    “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.”

    Better yet, after eight years of Reagan, Americans (most of them, the ones with brains, anyway) were proud once again to call themselves and be American, something that not too many Presidents in American History can lay claim to after the end of their time in the White House.

    If we could get all of these pathetic clowns out of the way and somehow bring back Reagan for at least a third term, I’d be all for it.

    • Max Power says:

      You mean bring back the guy who tripled the national debt and created the mindset that Americans could have small government tax rates and big government services? No thanks.

      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        No, the guy who lead us out of the political and economic malaise of the Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter years and on to a victory in Cold War….You know, one of the BEST, if not arguably, THE BEST, Presidents in this nation’s history….That guy!

    • Rick Day says:

      Ah yes, pride. Swagger.

      Pride= Deadliest of Sins

      That Pride beget Iraq1, Afghanistan, Iraq2, Mozambique; all military failures because their missions were flawed from the beginning by the Pride within the World Police.

  3. seenbetrdayz says:

    I have a hard time believing that (R)epublicans would vote for Ronald Reagan if he were running today (hypothetically I mean, if he were not dead, and eligible to run).

    I know I know, it’s blasphemy, what I just said. Carry on.

  4. saltycracker says:

    I think the current candidates are well aware of conservative respect for Reagan and back to Jefferson and not so much for Bush II. So, where do we go from here?
    Anybody but Obama ?

    In Florida I always saw Reagan in the first Cuban wave pre-Carter.
    And I see him in Rubio .
    Romney/Rubio is a possible step forward.

    • L. Max Lehmann says:

      Somebody I know indicated Rubio was not interested in VEEP.

      Really, that is the question: Who’s Mitt’s VEEP gonna be?

      I wonder what the Gipper would have said about HB954?

  5. Talked a good game, willing to compromise – few of his “conservative” positions actually became law. America was a whiter place back then so the true crazies had less of a reason to rise up and were easier to tamp down when they did. The parties were defined more on state issues and less on national ideological lines, so it was easier to build up a coalition that included liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was easier to tell the conservative Republicans to pipe down since you needed those other creatures (which don’t really exist these days) in your coalition – and they never quite got as worked up because you set out to build that coalition from the start instead of starting with the Tea partiers and then trying to build on it.

    The worst thing to happen to the Republican party is the big win in 2010 on the back of a group that is a sizeable minority but out of the mainstream of American politics. Democrats didn’t end up with Clinton until we lost one (1988) that we should have won due to the fact that the underlying fundamentals of the party were just so bad. Maybe 2012 – an election that on its face Republicans should win but likely won’t be able to will be that election. The question is will they turn to a Reagan who talks the talk but is ready to walk an accommodating walk with a majority of Americans? Or will they turn deeper to their core and be in the minority for a decade?

    • Dave Bearse says:

      All indications are the movement hard right is accelerating. Chafee in 2006, Specter in 2010, Snowe in 2012. Electing a guy like Bob Dole as a GOP Senator would now would be a struggle, let alone someone like him becoming Majority Leader. Presidential nominee? Forget it.

      The Rubios, Demints, and Wests, non-electable nationally except by fluke, are the core of a party that lacks enthusiasm for anything to their left. The GOP appears to have embraced radioactivity half life concept, and is relishing it too. Drum out or alienate its left-most elements year after year. Anything remotely left is gone, and centrist’s days are numbered. Heck, guys like Lindsey Graham are now becoming subject to attack from the right and increasingly will have to watch their Ps and Qs.

  6. johnl says:

    I was in high school and college during the Reagan years. I remember being scared to death I was going to be drafted to fight a war in Honduras or Nicaragua or that I would be incinerated by a Soviet nuclear missle, and those worries were exacerbated because we all knew, even then, that Reagan was suffering from dementia.

    Now I’m grown up and as conservative as you can get, but I honestly don’t understand the deification of Reagan these days. Historically speaking, he was a good president, but I don’t think the GOP is served very well by all of this wistful “looking back.”

    In fact, that’s our problem. No wonder that we (the GOP) are unsatisfied with our presidential candidates. We’re too busy looking back instead of looking for someone in the here and now to lead us.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      When you’ve got no one to lead in the here and now, you might as well live in a past era that becomes more and more and romanticized as time marches on.

      I didn’t quite have the fear of thermonuclear war that many had, I just remember the really long gas lines to get really high-priced gas and the really long unemployment lines and the like at the end of the Carter years and how the price of gas gradually came down and the length of the unemployment lines gradually shrank and how the country was in much better shape when Reagan left office than when he first got into office, despite any questions about his health.

      In other words, Reagan left the country in much better shape than when he “found” it at the start of his Presidency.

      The way he may have gone about governing may not have necessarily been pretty at times, it never is for any President no matter how good or bad they are, but Reagan was unarguably one of the absolutely most effective Presidents in American history.

  7. cheapseats says:

    If Reagan were reincarnated, he would be the Democratic front-runner for POTUS. The Republicans and Fox News would be screaming that he was a socialist, tax-raiser, appeaser, and would allow the country to be over-run by Mexicans.

    My memories of the Reagan years are about almost going bankrupt – his term was very bad for a lot of small businesses but great for big business.

  8. gcp says:

    Reagan gave amnesty to 3 million illegals. There are now at least 11 million illegals in this country. Amnesty is not the solution to the problem.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      “Amnesty is not the solution to the problem.”

      Why not? Don’t you like your neighborhood, city and country being dominated by Latin American drug cartels?

      A rock in every pipe and a meth lab on every block is the new open borders crowd mantra.

      Yeah, that amnesty thing really sucked the first time when there were three million illegals, but this time it’ll be much better with only 20 million illegals in the country (that 11 million you cited is kind of a low-ball number, especially when the economy is somewhat growing).

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          I could possibly support legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana because marijuana’s prohibition has actually served to do nothing more than make it a gateway drug for the really destructive substances like crack cocaine and now meth (many drug dealers ensure that their “clientele” will keep coming back to make purchases by something slowly putting much harder and much more addictive substances like crack cocaine, meth and even embalming fluid into what is thought to be marijuana, hence making it a gateway drug for the really bad stuff and the resulting destructive side effects of prostitution and violent crime).

          But knowing the horrid destructiveness of drugs like crack cocaine, meth, heroin and the like, I could never support the legalization of those substances after seeing how badly they harm individual people and the families and the communities around them.

          • Rick Day says:

            Ah, so…you support the return of alcohol prohibition. Because if you are going to judge a substance’s legality by rationalizing the maximum possible potential harm, if horribly abused (which, um, is NOT the norm), then I suggest you not be hypocritical about booze.

            If this country has not fallen to pieces with legal alcohol, it certainly won’t with legal cocaine.

            If hard drugs were legally available at your local pharmacy, delivered in pure, metered doses, would you use them? I would not. It is not about the law, it is about choices.

            Look, I trust you will not become a violent drunk if legal alcohol were available. Can you not extend the same trust to most others?

    • ricstewart says:

      The reason IRCA didn’t work is because it addressed the symptoms, not the cause.
      It did grant amnesty and provided additional enforcement resources, but it didn’t restructure the immigration system or change the laws the make them more enforceable. Throwing billions of dollars at enforcing unenforceable laws is pointless. Had IRCA expanded legal immigration, it would have worked.

  9. Dave Bearse says:

    The Reagan optimism is but another GOP longing for an idealized past divorced from a present of nastiness and negativity for which it shares responsibility.

    Rush Limbaugh calls a woman a slut and a prostitute on national radio because she expresses an opinion in support of well and long established health insurance coverage of contraception. Leading GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s response is that Rush’s remarks were “inappropriate”. The running second Santorum response is that the remarks were “absurd”. The GOP position isn’t that the remarks were wrong and deserving of rebuke, but simply a matter of decorum (Romney) or foolishness (Santorum). That conservatives since Reagan have blamed popular culture and a liberal media for lowering the standards of public discourse is exposed as hypocrisy (which can be added to the GOP hypocrisy of spending, deficits and entitlements 2001-2006).

    GOP candidates keep saying Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, with each claiming to the Reagan heir. The conclusion, if one wasn’t around then, is that Reagan was a partisan hypocrite (which he wasn’t). Divisive can be appended to partisan hypocrite if the Reagan, Reagan, Reagan GOP candidates and the party continues escalating its “war on women”—first by Cain, continued with Planned Parenthood, through the SC primary and the continuing blind eye to Gingrich’s infidelities (an issue only to the extent it’s another GOP hypocrisy), and now into contraception.

    Everyone left of center, and most brown people, non-Christians, and homosexuals are outside of the GOP tent. Guess it’s time to begin ejecting white women. Come the national convention and the tent flaps are raised, not only will there be more people on the outside, fewer of ’em are going to vote for the GOP candidate because they don’t see anyone like themselves on the inside.

    It’s not Reagan-like, but then again, neither is the current GOP. As seenbetrdayz said, Reagan today wouldn’t make it to nominee.

    • seenbetrdayz says:

      Well, to be honest, I think it’s lame how the media tries to tie in guilt by (very, very loose) association. I don’t like Mitt or Santorum, but it’s pretty obvious what interviewers are trying to do when they ask candidates to give opinions on inflammatory statements of others.

      Both the left and right media does that. They look to build controversy on top of existing controversy.

      //// Anyway,

      I think Reagan wouldn’t make it to be the GOP nominee because he talked a lot about reducing the scope of the Federal government, and, for whatever reason, republicans are scared to death to choose the one guy in the current running who’s been saying that for 30 years, and even supported Reagan when he was saying it back in the 80s. Reagan was able to build a consensus around the idea that liberal-leaning states might have ideas on what they want their government to be, and conservative-leaning states might have different ideas on what they want their government to be, so the best approach was to try to return those powers to the states.

      I’ve heard Mitt burp out a few comments on the 10th amendment. I just have trouble determining whether he’s sincere about it.

      Although, I can’t let democrats off the hook, either, that Reagan couldn’t hypothetically get nominated nowadays. For some reason, the democrats have taken to viewing the 10th amendment as a power used by the ‘right’, rather than something they could use as well. Most democrats have come to view the 10th Amendment as some power that can only be used to ‘preserve slavery’ or some nonsense, rather than say, protect liberal states’ legalization of medical marijuana from federal legislators on the right (yes I realize that Reagan continued the drug war, but the fundamental argument stands). Reagan was able to chop through the talking points on both sides and get everyone to come to an agreement that the federal government was too intrusive, whether you were democrat or republican. The republican critters at the federal level had no business telling democrats at the state level what to do, and the democrat critters at the federal level had no business telling republicans at the state level what to do;

      And, for one brief moment in recent American history, We the People said to ourselves, “You know what? He might be on to something here.”

  10. Rick Day says:

    There were long gas lines in 2005 and 2007, yo!

    Talk about expensive?

    Gas back in the Horrible Carter Years™ ~ it went from .32 a gallon to .68! We all freaked!

    In 1976 I was 21. So I remember well the Carter and Reagan eras. Everyone kind of forgets about Nixon/Ford and how THEY made us ashamed of being Americans by being cheaters (Kind of like the Saints are today, those bounty hunting cheats!).

    Carter was a Naval Officer with Nuclear knowledge. He was also a farmer with grass-roots knowledge. Probably the last ‘well rounded’ POTUS we have had. The others seem to be “Career Politicians” with no callouses on their hands. Some people think having common interest with the populous is an important aspect of leadership. If he were a snack, he would be a peanut. Not exciting, but generally good for you.

    Reagan rode horses and read scripts really well. If he were a snack, he would be a Jolly Rancher.

    I remember how the country was under financial burdens due to the Asia Expeditions; Carter inherited a financial mess. Reagan carried on with the GOP plan, and the determination to come in 2nd place in the ‘bankrupt economy’ race with the USSR colloquially known as “The Cold War” and “The Arms Race”.

    We are bankrupt too, but we won! Reagan tore down that wall! Except, he didn’t. He was preoccupied by a nice furry kitten his handlers got him. Kept him out of trouble, I guess. (OK, I made that part up)

    I remember how livid the Republican Leadership was when Carter STOLE Ford’s Presidential Anointment, since all the good Democrat leaders having been ‘capped’ (see Bobby Kennedy, MLK, et al) and no one thought, of all people..CARTER!.

    I remember Big Oil not happy with the change in the status quo in 1976. No more profitable, energy sucking wars. Pollution regulations? Energy conservation introduced as a viable solution (loudly mocked by the status quo, to this day)? Not in my well pipes!

    Big Oil owns and controls the spigot, but Carter got the blame, because the victors (in this case, Reagan) get to write history.

    I remember the so-called “hostage crisis” which created sensationalism news programming (NightLine from ABC beget from nightly reporting of the situation). I remember mostly Republicans blaming Carter for not donning his POTUS uniform and *up and awayyyy* flying to Iran to Save The Day. The GOP makes much political hay of this ‘failure’ to this day.

    Except, turns out there were other “Americans” who were actively working to stifle any progress Carter made until after the election. Then, MAGICALLY, the Reagan Jesus make the bad guys “let our people go”. Only, we gave arms to terrorists, and traded in illegal drugs, and lied to Congress about it. Reagan lamely apologized, took full responsibility, and didn’t resign in disgrace as he should for lying to the American People like Nixon did. That was refreshing. Like the Saints lamely apologizing for cheating only 100 times worse.

    Oops. But Reagan freed the hostages! (According to GOP history writers). And Reagan gave the Oil boys what they wanted and lo and behold, the POTUS has a magical power to raise or lower your gasoline price!

    I began disliking the GOP at Nixon, and his hatred for my generation. Carter was a bridge, a breath of fresh air (until the GOP political Machine started farting up the air again).

    Reagan was the Father of Greed. His handler’s new vision was not one of peace and happiness, it was through acquiring material things and consumerism. Reagan taught us it was better to consume for the benefit of the Market that Takes Care of Us All (except when it doesn’t).

    I always saw Reagan as a doddering old doof (my instincts served me well). He could never relate to a citizen like me and my young family like I thought a Carter could. This was a man who oversaw mandatory minimum laws, crack/powder cocaine disparity sentencing guidelines, “just Say No” and gave rise to criminals like Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Ollie North and Dick Cheney.

    Plus Reagan Cheerleaders NEVER really discuss WHO was running the country and making policy decisions after it was discovered Ronnie had a brain issue. When we talk about Reagan the Figurehead, that is one thing; as a figurehead, he excelled. When we talk about Reagan as an international leader, there should be a big fat caveat on that commentary.

    Don’t you all feel it was disingenuous for there to be a long delay in informing the nation about the deteriorating mental state of it’s leader?

    The Reagan era delayed our countries progress by 40 years. Do remember him fondly. Those of us who lived under him as an adult, and not a glitter-eyed member of the Cult of GOP, remember a different time and a much different man.

  11. Harry says:

    The Reagan era delayed our countries progress by 40 years.
    Your experience was obviously different from that of the vast majority of the rest of us.

  12. elfiii says:

    I would crawl across broken glass in the fires of Hell wearing gasoline underwear with a broke back to vote for Reagan again were he alive and eligible.

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