Once again — perhaps this time hoping that they are right — Time magazine has ostentatiously declared: “The End of the Reagan Era.” In the November 17 “commemorative edition,” the magazine features a piece by historian Richard Norton Smith explaining how “the Age of the Gipper ends with Obama’s election.”
But we’ve seen this movie before. Back in 2006, Time’s Joe Klein enthusiastically suggested the Democrats’ midterm election victory marked “the end of the conservative pendulum swing that began with Ronald Reagan’s revolution.”
Before that, in 1993, a Time cover story proclaimed that Bill Clinton was “Overturning the Reagan Era,” complete with an upside-down picture of Reagan. Reporter Nancy Gibbs insisted that passage of Clinton’s package of tax increases “brings to an end a bankrupt period in American politics. The narrow votes on Thursday and Friday represent the first real rejection of Reaganomics, a doctrine that survived for more than a decade in which taxes were lowered, spending raised, and Congress was blamed while everyone watched the deficit soar.”
It’s not hard to see how Smith got the assignment to help bury Reaganism. While he elevates Reagan to a status alongside Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt — presidents whose “status transcends stone portraiture or academic canonization...[who] stamped his name and, more importantly, his ideas, personality and values on a defining chapter of the American story” — Smith saves all of his criticism for Reagan’s conservative approach, even as he uses Reagan’s example to scold today’s Republicans as mean and backwards. An excerpt:
Reagan preferred laughing at his adversaries to demonizing them. He disarmed critics of his relaxed administrative style by acknowledging that the right hand of his Administration didn't always know what its far-right hand was up to. As the laughter crested, so did the tax-cutting, the regulatory rollback and the military buildup that foreshadowed, paradoxically, the most sweeping arms reductions of the nuclear era. The ensuing political realignment was measured less in voter-registration rolls than in a pervasive skepticism about the state. Because there were many things government did badly, it came to be assumed, there was virtually nothing it did well....
No President is immune to the law of unintended consequences. By decoupling conservatism in the 1980s from fiscal responsibility, he unwittingly sanctioned future deficits and helped usher in a consumerist society gaudily living beyond its means. The result: credit-card conservatism. Deprived of their green eyeshades, the Cold War and the Soviet Union, Reagan's ideological children have little to unify their fractious family except love of country and loyalty to the past.
Certainly the campaign they ran this fall was anything but Reaganesque. One wonders what Reagan the onetime movie star would make of a campaign that made an epithet out of celebrity. More than tactics, ideas mattered to Reagan. He was the proverbial conviction politician, and his midlife conversion from New Deal liberal to Goldwater conservative owed more to Friedrich von Hayek than Joe the Plumber--the latter a perfect symbol of a party running on intellectual fumes. While Reagan thought in decades, if not centuries, his political heirs define success as owning the news cycle. Thus Halloween came early this year, as GOP operatives lurched from Ayers to acorn to questioning their opponents' patriotism and flinging allegations of socialism. The last claim in particular rang hollow coming from one who voted to recapitalize Wall Street and partly nationalize the banking system with $700 billion in taxpayer funds.
A base campaign indeed. McCain is a better man than his robocalls. Yet he became enmeshed in the red-state-vs.-blue-state, hot-button, wedge-issue, 50%-plus-one formula that has dominated and degraded our politics in these locust years of racial, regional and cultural polarization. Reagan at his best was a happy warrior, who put a smile on the sometimes dour face of conservatism and recast his political faith as both optimistic and futuristic. He was no hater, and cultural scapegoating wasn't his style. Indeed, in 1978 Reagan courageously opposed a California referendum that would have made it easier to fire gay schoolteachers simply on account of their sexual orientation.
Conservatives wishing to honor their modern founding father might begin by practicing what Reagan preached in his valedictory address to the 1992 GOP Convention in Houston. "Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone," he told us, "I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts." Some things are ageless.