Many self-proclaimed Reaganites wrongly see otherwise. Their uncompromising agenda includes never raising taxes, foreign interventionism and a commitment to shrinking government spending, especially on popular entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. This rigid approach has rightly been criticized as “zombie Reaganism” and is the central point from which much of the intra-GOP policy debate takes its cues. Republicans who seriously engage in these debates increasingly seek to define themselves as either for or against this unholy trinity.
Reagan might say of the zombies who speak in his name that “they know so much that isn’t so.” The real Reagan raised taxes when he needed to, both as governor and as president. He valued compromise over principled defeat. And he eschewed direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union or its powerful proxies. Those who criticize the withdrawal from Afghanistan should recall that Reagan withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon in 1984 after suicide bombers killed 241 U.S. service members the prior year. That departure condemned Lebanon to decades of civil conflict and allowed the Shiite militia Hezbollah to entrench itself on Israel’s northern border.
Reagan himself did not define his legacy solely, or perhaps even primarily, in terms of policy victories. His epitaph doesn’t mention a single word about his monumental achievements. Instead, it is more general and encompassing: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
That love for people is probably why his most moving speeches focused on the virtues of the American people itself. Reagan’s first inaugural address spoke of everyday Americans as “heroes” for their devotion to their families and their quiet patriotism. He also praised Americans for their compassion, asking “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick, and provide opportunities to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?” Zombie Reaganites always leave this part of the Gipper’s soul out of their formulaic depiction.
Reagan valued his specific accomplishments, but he arguably most highly valued something less tangible: “resurgence of national pride.” He once said that he dreamed to “help Americans rise above pessimism by renewing their belief in themselves.” His legendary optimism wasn’t Pollyannaish; it was based on a fundamental belief in the inherent worth and dignity of human beings. He loved America because it enshrined that principle at the center of its founding for the first time in history, and because the Founders’ system of government allowed those facts to take root and grow.
Thoughtful Republicans are beginning to recover this aspect of Reagan’s legacy. Walker often referred back to this during our talk, saying that focusing on the untapped, untamed potential of the American people was Reagan’s most important legacy. “He made us feel good again,” Walker told me. That’s why Reagan’s farewell address ended by exhorting Americans to revere their history and teach their children about it, something Walker believed was especially crucial today, as America’s founding increasingly is coming under assault.
Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley picked up on this theme during her recent speech at the Reagan Library. “More than anything,” she told the crowd, “Ronald Reagan renewed our will to compete and win.” She continued: “The most important mission of our time is to stop our national self-loathing,” arguing, like Reagan, that American principles need to be reembraced and extolled. That idea is compatible with many different marginal tax rates or postures toward military action.
This version of Reagan’s legacy also counteracts some of the worst aspects of former president Donald Trump’s influence. Walker saw many parallels between the two men, but he also noted that “Trump didn’t leave an aspirational view.” A Republicanism that can articulate that sense of American purpose and destiny will do much to solve that problem while healing the party’s divisions. It will also renew the real Reagan legacy for our time — one that can again credibly speak of America as a shining city on a hill open to all.