Note to Conservatives: Guard Your History
By: David Bozeman
February 6 marks the 100th birthday of President Ronald Reagan, and while his legacy as the pre-eminent conservative of the 20th century remains not only unshaken but sturdier than ever, his ideological heirs had better guard the truth of the 1980s from those who typically rewrite history to suit their own ends.
Conservatives, who typically feel more at home in the realms of military and business, readily concede art and academia to the left. Little wonder that Calvin Coolidge is widely regarded as a docile country bumpkin who slept his presidency away, and Warren Harding, the scandalous bootleg-gin swilling philanderer has transformed the real 29th president who, according to some accounts, literally worked himself to death.
Revisionists today would like history to recall that Ronald Reagan was not the conservative the modern right makes him out to be. A May 2010 Newsweek piece entitled ‘Even Ronald Reagan Was Not a Reagan Conservative’ cites numerous tax increases, a skyrocketing budget deficit and the size of the federal government (versus the Clinton years), among other actions during his presidency, to prove that modern-day conservatives would have booted the Gipper much like they did George W. Bush into his second term.
Point of fact: conservatives, particularly those who were around at the time, will concede (albeit reluctantly) that the Reagan Revolution lost some of its steam in the second term, thus enabling the Democrats to regain the Senate in 1986. Nonetheless, his early tax increases were enacted with the understanding that the Democrat-controlled House would make spending cuts (for which we’re still waiting — is it just me or does bi-partisanship not usually work to the detriment of America’s best interests?). As to the growth of government, even if the Newsweek claim is true, power is not measurable in the mere number of federal employees — a more streamlined, more outsourced, more efficient Nanny-state is still just that. The entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that Reagan unleashed is what sustained America’s economy for a generation.
To understand Reagan (and Newsweek and other outlets clearly don’t) demands context. In 1980, America and the GOP itself had seldom seen such a powerful, likeable conservative on the national stage, and it took an epic loss in the 1976 primary to finally secure the nomination four years later. No talk radio, no Internet, no cable news — conservative dialogue was mostly limited to National Review and PBS’s The Firing Line. With a massive Democrat majority in the House and an entrenched federal bureaucracy, Reagan was able to cut top marginal tax rates from around 70% to just under 30 and also gave businesses investment tax credits and depreciation deductions.
He not only forged a path for future Republican leaders, he set the bar and he raised it high. The point is not whether Reagan would be a conservative by modern standards, his greatness is earned because he refused to surrender American prosperity and pre-eminence when such senile blather was not couth and not cool, not in the Washington establishment and not even in his own party.
Now that the liberal brand has clearly fallen out of favor, we’re hearing more and more that labels don’t matter, that victory is won not on the extremes but in the center. Don’t be fooled — Reagan’s impact on modern conservatism is incalculable, and while he may have surrendered some details, he never let go of his vision, and that is why his name, and not Gerald Ford’s or Bob Dole’s or John McCain’s, is synonymous with American exceptionalism. Reagan’s memory belongs not just to historians — of either the left or the right — but to the fruitful, law-abiding Americans in whom he invested so much faith. The truth of his purpose and legacy is the ultimate gift to a free people on his 100th birthday.