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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Roots of Reaganolatry

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on February 7, 2011.
I’m coming a bit late to the 100th birthday party of Ronald Reagan. But the amazing extent to which he serves as the sole secular saint of Republican and conservative-movement politics these days demands some comment.
As J.P. Green documented last Friday, the mythology of St. Ronald ignores an awful lot of inconvenient facts about the man and his actual presidency. And as Jonathan Chait explained today, the conservative refutation of these facts is a bit threadbare.
But I’m interested in why conservatives still hold so fiercely to Reaganolatry 22 years after he left office. I’d offer three reasons:
First and most important, particularly to older conservatives, was his status as de facto leader of the conservative movement long before his presidency. From the moment he was elected governor of California in 1966, he displaced Barry Goldwater as the conservative movement’s political leader, and sustained its hopes through the craziness and ultimate disaster of the Nixon administration. Indeed, Reagan’s only momentary rival for the affection of conservatives, Spiro T. Agnew, resigned in disgrace, making the Californian more than ever the True Leader as the Right washed its hands of complicity in the presidency that launched wage and price controls, recognized China, pursued detente, and signed the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Later Reagan fulfilled a generation of conservative fantasies by challenging a “moderate Republican” incumbent president, and nearly pulled it off. Said “moderate” proceded to lose against a relatively conservative Democrat, reinforcing the “A Choice Not An Echo” prescriptions of the Goldwater insurgency.
Second and equally important, Reagan won in 1980 as an outspokenly conservative Republican nominee–the first time, ever, that had happened, after a long series of defeats that dated back to the Taft candidacy of 1940, which was crushed, as was his 1952 candidacy, at the Republican National Convention. Remember that as of 1980, the last three elected Republican presidents had been Richard Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Herbert Hoover. Reagan killed off the assumption, which was very powerful in Republican Establishment circles, that you could not move Right and win. This is an empirical data point that is particularly important to today’s right-bent Republicans, who have successfully defeated the argument that after 2006 and 2008, the GOP needed to moderate its conservative ideology to reclaim power. The Republican nominees after Reagan–Bush, Bush, Bush, Bush and McCain–were either heretics or losers, from the conservative ideological point of view.
Third and finally, Reagan’s talking points have more historical resonance than his governing record. He was the president who proclaimed that “government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” a line that defines today’s conservatives better than anything they are saying. He was the president who first suggested that cutting taxes was compatible with fiscal discipline, another contemporary GOP axiom. He was the president who seriously tried to slash domestic programs, even if he soon gave up on the project.
Until such time as Republicans find another idol (and we should remember that George W. Bush briefly auditioned for the role, particularly when the initial invasion of Iraq succeeded and he was hailed as a world-historical figure), Reagan remains the only available icon.
And so they continue to worship at his altar, until such time as a new leader emerges who can cleanse them of the failures of the Bush administration much as Reagan seemed to cleanse them of Nixon’s.

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