Reagan at 100 casts shadow over Republican Party

The Post's Dan Balz analyzes what made Ronald Reagan the great communicator.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 12:49 AM

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, Ronald Reagan is remembered as a transformative president, the creator of the contemporary Republican Party and the very definition of conservatism. He might also be as misunderstood by some of his followers as he is underappreciated by his detractors.

Reagan, who died in 2004, is the object of both mythmaking and revisionism. As his presidency has undergone examination and reevaluation by conservative and liberal scholars, his place in history has grown larger.

His iconic stature among conservatives is a source of inspiration for a Republican Party that, despite its victories in November, still hungers to recapture the high points of his presidency. Yet to many Republicans, Reagan nostalgia is an obstacle to the party's hopes of moving forward in a different time with challenges different from those of the 1980s.

Reagan's leadership style blended conviction, flexibility, toughness and optimism. Those who try to pinpoint a single attribute to explain Reagan's success often overlook other facets of his political persona that were equally significant. And although he helped fuel the conservative ascendancy, he was not, in the estimation of scholars, a conventional conservative, certainly not by today's standards.

Steven F. Hayward, a conservative scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of two volumes under the title "The Age of Reagan," said that accepting the 40th president's unique qualities is key to understanding his impact and influence. "His particular brand of conservatism, was idiosyncratic," Hayward said, adding: "He was unconventional even from a conservative point of view."

Sean Wilentz, a liberal historian at Princeton University and the author of "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008," said Reagan's New Deal roots, California perspective and conservative convictions combined to form a package that cannot be easily replicated. "He was a Reaganite," Wilentz said. "Maybe the only Reaganite."

Lou Cannon, the journalist and Reagan biographer whose book "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" was on President Obama's holiday reading list, questioned whether Reagan would be comfortable with the elements of today's Republican Party who demand near-purity as the measure of a true conservative.

"As Reagan has become more broadly acceptable to the American people, and as the scholars give him higher rankings, the Republicans want to hold on to this pure ideological vision of a Reagan that really never existed, or if it did exist, didn't sustain one week in Sacramento or Washington," he said.

In the reinterpretations of Reagan, some liberals have sought to characterize him, as Hayward wrote recently in National Review, as a "crypto-liberal." Reagan sought to reverse the flow of power to Washington that began with the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for whom he voted four times, but he did not attempt to dismantle key elements of the New Deal and lived with big deficits throughout his presidency.

Reagan's conservative convictions were never in question. But he could differentiate between principles and individual policy battles. He made tax cuts a central component of Republican economics but accepted tax increases as governor and as president. He signed a liberal abortion bill as governor of California, though he was a strong opponent of abortion as president. He called the Soviet Union the "evil empire" but later toned down his rhetoric as he moved to negotiate with the Soviets to limit nuclear arms.

Wilentz found the Reagan record anything but one-dimensional. "I'm not saying he was a liberal," Wilentz said. "He wasn't. He wasn't even a moderate. He moved the country in a conservative way, and the country has not been the same since. . . . He cleared the way for liberalism to be on the defensive."

Makings of a president

The arc of Reagan's early career is well known: radio announcer, Grade B actor, Screen Actors Guild president, pitchman for General Electric, and then, in 1964, a debut on the national political stage with a televised speech for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater titled "A Time for Choosing."

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