Trust, but Verify

Why do conservatives seem so eager to fit Obama into Reagan’s legacy?

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.
Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama

Barack Obama has been paying too much attention to the wrong president from Illinois. Instead of spending so much time with Abraham Lincoln, the president ought to be studying film of the other guy who put Illinois in the White House (by way of California): Ronald Reagan. And the American Enterprise Institute wants to help.

Lincoln’s 200th birthday, which was Thursday, spawned a federal commission, a new penny, and scores of commemorative speeches and events, several given or attended by Obama himself. Reagan’s 98th birthday, which was six days earlier, was marked by a panel discussion on the top floor of a downtown Washington office building. Afterward, there was a movie about Reagan’s life. Even before the showing, it was drawing raves. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “If you put Ronald Reagan on-screen long enough, it’s going to be a great film.”

Gingrich was the host (with his wife) of both the movie and of AEI’s “Rendezvous With Destiny: A Panel on Ronald Reagan” earlier in the day. And if the gathering of five panelists and a few score onlookers felt embattled or marginalized or merely overlooked in these early days of the Age of Obama, it didn’t show. In fact, the discussion soon turned from the scope of Reagan’s legacy—the spectrum of debate ranged from whether he is one of the top five presidents or one of the top four—to a kind of advice session for President Obama. According to these guys, as long as we don’t talk about actual positions on actual issues, Obama could be the next Reagan.

Which was a weird omission for a discussion at a Washington think tank. In think tanks, at least theoretically, policy matters more than politics, and issues take precedence over personalities. There are still villains and heroes, of course. But seldom do you see a two-and-a-half-hour celebration of a former president’s legacy that barely touches on his policy accomplishments—and is only mildly critical of the current president’s policies, almost all of which go against the former president’s. Should we praise AEI for political generosity or condemn it for ideological bankruptcy?

Do we have to choose? The more interesting question may be whether it is possible for Obama to inherit and undermine Reagan’s legacy simultaneously.

Reagan’s legacy, at least according to the panel, is that he was resolute and patient and good-humored and ambitious and mature and optimistic and smart and eloquent and graceful and confident and (pause for breath) disciplined and patriotic and kind. All of which, it almost goes without saying, are admirable qualities and many of which, according to friends and foes alike, Obama possesses. But what if he were to use his powers for evil and not for good? What if he decides to tax the rich, increase spending, and generally engage in policymaking unlikely to win the approval of AEI panelists?

If any of these panelists were bothered by the prospect, they didn’t say. Most of the discussion consisted simply of winning anecdotes and endearing facts about Reagan. Newt asked Sam Donaldson, still capable of shouting with great authority, to tell him again how much the media underestimated Reagan. Sam complied. Michael Barone, a columnist for U.S. News and an AEI fellow, revealed how Reagan’s mother would occasionally send him 50 cents for spending money when he was in college. Craig Shirley, a political strategist, told of Reagan’s response when he saw “a smelly hippie” with a T-shirt that read, “Make Love Not War”: “I don’t think he could do either.” Forty years later, smelly hippies still get laughs.

After more than 90 minutes, it was time for questions from the audience. As in the discussion, no policy issues came up. No one asked about the possibility—the likelihood—that Obama would use his Reagan-esque gifts to advance a decidedly un-Reagan-esque agenda.

It should not be an unfamiliar question. One of conservatives’ most cherished doctrines about Reagan is that he was the true heir to FDR. Reagan famously voted for Roosevelt and was a former Democrat, and as Gingrich pointed out, he saw himself as a steward of American confidence in the way FDR was. (And—as Gingrich did not point out—Reagan presided over an expansion of the federal government and helped save Social Security.)

Over time, this view has pretty much become conventional wisdom. Obama himself has expressed admiration for the way that Reagan “changed the trajectory of America.” And one of the keys to presidential legacy-building is to keep the legacy broad and vague enough so that any subsequent presidential success can become part of it.

Still, during the Reagan years, many liberals were offended by the notion that a (nominally at least) small-government Republican was carrying on the legacy of the original big-government Democrat. Now that we’re in the Obama years, would many conservatives be offended by the idea that a liberal Democrat now stood to claim Reagan’s legacy?

I asked Newt Gingrich. He looked at me as if I hadn’t understood a word that had been said for the last two-and-a-half hours. “That’s not what this conference was about,” he said.