In John Harwood's Sunday Week in Review piece, "Rethinking The Reagan Mystique," he claimed Republicans are rejecting Ronald Reagan as a political inspiration and urging their party to look forward. He probably overstates the case. However, Harwood does come up with a novel insult of Reagan: The man the media labeled a heartless budget-cutter was actually a runaway spender in disguise!
For a liberal Democrat, President Obama has offered generous praise for the most celebrated of his recent Republican predecessors.
Mr. Obama has credited Ronald Reagan with having "changed the trajectory of America" in ways Bill Clinton didn't. "President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics," Mr. Obama said earlier this month while signing the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act in the presence of Nancy Reagan.
It's not surprising that Mr. Obama has embraced Mr. Reagan's achievement since it seems akin to his own aspirations and might also ingratiate him with conservatives. What is surprising is the increasingly ambiguous position Mr. Reagan holds on the right.
Some Republicans have begun reassessing whether Mr. Reagan today affords the best example as they seek a path back to power. The economic crisis, which Mr. Obama last fall declared a "final verdict" on the anti-government philosophy that George W. Bush and Mr. Reagan shared, has made Reaganism less politically marketable than at any time in a generation.
"I don't use him publicly as a reference point," said Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who lately has emerged as a potential national party leader. Mr. Daniels instead has urged fellow Republicans to "let go" of Mr. Reagan as a contemporary symbol.
As Mr. Reagan's White House political director, Mr. Daniels brings credibility to the discussion. A year ago, when he first proposed that Republicans turn the page he drew sharp criticism from Rush Limbaugh, among others. Now, Mr. Daniels observes, "I think it's spreading."
Harwood went on to note that conservatives like Newt Gingrich still salute the former president.
Harwood saved his most audacious line for near the end. After years of NYT caricatures of Reagan as a heartless budget cutter, Harwood suggested Reagan and George W. Bush were to blame for..."runaway spending."
Perhaps most important, the principal early line of attack Republicans have offered against Mr. Obama, that he is a profligate spender who will run up massive deficits, is also the area where the Reagan Revolution looks most vulnerable today, as critics on the right have pointed out. "The federal payroll was larger in 1989 than it had been in 1981," Richard Gamble wrote last month in American Conservative magazine. "Reagan's tax cuts, whatever their merits as short-term fiscal policy, left large and growing budget deficits when combined with increased spending, and added to the national debt."
To be sure, Mr. Reagan's failure to curb the cost of government reflected the enduring difficulty all presidents face in balancing the government services Americans want with the taxes they're willing to pay. But today it seems, increasingly, that it was Mr. Reagan and his admirer, George W. Bush, who contributed most to the problem of runaway spending, at least among recent presidents.