Feb. 6 marked the 100th anniversary of former President Ronald Reagan’s birth, and it was impossible to escape the celebrations taking place all over the country this year to honor him. Reagan is quoted left and right, by both the left and the right these days. Even General Electric has put out a touching television commercial honoring the 40th president and his early days at GE. In this age of hyperpartisanship, it’s almost unbelievable to see a modern political figure who transcends party or ideology anymore.Yet Reagan does because he truly represented the best of America.
While Reagan was no doubt a true conservative, he was also a pragmatist who wasn’t afraid to compromise for the greater good. Nor was he afraid to fail a conservative litmus test if he believed the cause was right. He successfully worked with Democrats in Congress to lower taxes and fix Social Security, and he truly believed in a “big tent” Republican Party that was just as inclusive of moderates and liberals as it was of conservatives. He rejected the polarizing purity tests that are once again polluting our political discourse. And while Reagan is rightly criticized by many in the gay community for his delayed reaction to the AIDS epidemic, what is often forgotten is that Reagan was a leading opponent of the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have banned gay individuals from teaching in schools. Some think it likely that without Reagan’s very public opposition, this anti-gay initiative would have passed.
Reagan risked losing some of his religious base by doing so, but he evidently knew it was the right thing to do.
While most people today view Reagan’s foreign policy as a clear success, many politicians and political pundits have forgotten how controversial it was for both liberals and conservatives at the time. They also forget why it worked.
Reagan was able to negotiate with his enemies, namely the USSR, because he did so from a position of strength. Actions such as aiming intercontinental ballistic missiles at the Soviet Union and developing the Strategic Defense Initiative (sarcastically dubbed “Star Wars”) demonstrated that Reagan, and the U.S., were not paper tigers. Still, Reagan’s willingness to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev and sign nuclear arms reduction treaties upset many conservatives at the time, with some declaring that “we had capitulated to the Soviets.” Some conservatives to this day believe you should never meet with your enemies, much less negotiate with them, while at the same time they ironically, hold Reagan up as their presidential role model.
Liberals were angry during Reagan’s time in office because they saw his military buildup and tough talk as that of an unenlightened warmonger. The height of liberal anger came when Reagan met with Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986, but ultimately left the meeting without an arms reduction agreement. The Soviets demanded that Reagan give up SDI in return for a treaty, and when Reagan refused, liberals were the ones who went ballistic (pun intended). They thought he threw away the entire arms reduction process out of stubbornness. But Reagan thought the Soviets would eventually agree to a treaty without getting SDI, and once again, he was right. That’s why Reagan was so successful.
He was able to be “liberal” at times, and do things liberal presidents were never able to do, such as end the nuclear arms race and the Cold War, because he approached situations with a tough, conservative credibility. When Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was a legitimate threat to the Free World, communism was expanding, and there were only 45 democracies in the world. When Reagan left office, the Soviet Union was about to collapse, communism was in retreat, and there were 70 democracies in the world. Much of this can be credited to the 40th president.
It is worth pointing out that Reagan presided over what might have been the last period of unchallenged American dominance in the world. Since then, America’s mission and purpose have been fuzzy. The image of America as an unbridled powerhouse, politically and economically, has been tarnished by the misadventures and false starts of his successors, while other countries, such as China, have stepped in to fill the void. Ironically, Reagan did such a good job at vanquishing America’s enemies, who had long defined who we were and who we were not, that his successors have since struggled to redefine our mission and purpose in the world. It is possible we have such fond memories of Reagan because he reminds us of that last great period of time before America began its slow descent into mediocrity.
Or not. If Reagan were still alive, I’m confident that he would still believe America’s best days are ahead and not behind. He had an infectious optimism for the future that represented the very best of America, and a belief that in spite of any challenges we face, we will continue to form a more perfect union. You didn’t always have to agree with Reagan in order to like him, but we admire Reagan because he challenged the limits of what we thought one president could accomplish. We admire Reagan because he put the greater good ahead of ideology. We admire Reagan because he made us proud to be Americans again.
Matthew Craffey of Thousand Oaks earned a bachelor’s degree in political science with an emphasis in international relations from California Lutheran University. Check out his opinions on politics, faith and music at http://www.matthewcraffey.com.