False Gods

My last post suggested a follow-up regarding the resurgent adulation for Ronald Reagan.

I proudly admit to being a big fan of the Gipper. That said, I think contemporary conservatives play a dangerous game in making Reagan the gold standard for what “true” conservatism ought to be. The rhetoric from right-wing pundits seems to weigh each of the 2008 contenders in light of the man who brought morning to America.

The problem with this isn’t that Reagan isn’t worth emulation. Rather, it’s that conservatism properly understood requires its core principles to be logically severable from its pantheon. Yes, Reagan was a great president. He set a strong example of conservative governance. But he also operated in a time when certain policy positions had different tactical relevance than they do today.

Take foreign affairs, for example. In the 1980s, the chief foreign-policy challenge facing the United States was the steady advancement of the Soviet Union across its puppets in Asia, Africa, and Latin/South America. The prospect of annihilation by the Evil Empire loomed large; even as late as Chernobyl, the Great Red March seemed inevitable, and any opposition to it appeared destined to be a rearguard action. Reagan’s bold engagement of the communist mindset, loudly supported by Iron Maggie and JP2, was as masterful as it was counterintuitive to the realpolitik of the day. In today’s world, though, it’s not enough for conservatives to substitute “al Qaeda” for “communism” and follow the same geopolitical model as Reagan did. Our response to militant Islamism needs to be different if it is to be successful.

Taxes present another point of contrast. Reagan’s tax cuts spurred the Carter economy out of stagflation and, eventually, into overdrive. Yes, Bush’s tax cuts are important, and ought to be preserved — but we may be reaching the point of diminishing marginal utility for major tax cuts unless Congress gets serious about substantial spending decreases. The massive reduction in the top rate engineered in the 1980s is, in relative terms, much more significant than the relatively modest reductions in the top rate signed into law by President Bush.

Part of the reason the Democrats suffered in the 1990s was because they continued to use the Great Society playbook. They idolized FDR, JFK, and RFK, and continued to advance the same general policy goals in 1998 as they did in 1968 and 1938, even though America was a very different place 30 years after Tet and Kent State and MLK’s assassination.

Conservatives would be well-served to avoid elevating Reagan to the point that “authentic” Reaganism means aping the policies and tactics that Reagan employed in response to very specific challenges, in situations when those policies and tactics don’t match our new very specific challenges. In other words, conservatives must guard against the same ossification of strategy that so hampered the Democrats for a generation.

Conservatism that’s based on principle has a future, especially when those principles are true to the ideals espoused by Reagan and his closest allies during their glory years. Conservatism that’s merely a snapshot of a supposed golden age, is hollow and without a future. Regardless of what lies ahead for the Republican Party — and its troubles are not insignificant — the conservative movement has its own demons to slay, and in that battle, success lies in honoring, but not deifying, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

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