September 5, 2009


Another One for the Gipper: a review of THE AGE OF REAGAN: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980-1989 By Steven F. Hayward (ROSS DOUTHAT, 9/06/09, NY Times Book Review)

Hayward is appropriately dismissive toward the anti-anti-Communist left, whose cringing posture toward the Soviet Union throughout the 1970s and ’80s still has the power to appall. (As he notes — harshly, but not unfairly — it was often difficult to tell the difference between the criticism by Reagan’s left-wing opponents and editorials in Pravda.) And his damning portrayals of Democratic politicians like Tip O’Neill and Walter Mondale, men who seemed incapable of imagining an economic policy that didn’t involve divvying up a shrinking pie among an expanding array of interest groups, feels entirely appropriate as well.

But not every argument from the 1980s is a dead letter today. In an age of counter­insurgency, the moral compromises that America’s support for third world anti-Communism entailed deserve more scrutiny than “The Age of Reagan” gives them. So too, in an era of mounting deficits, do the long-term consequences of Reagan’s fiscal policy — for the country, but especially for the conservative approach to governance. (Hayward does criticize Reagan for claiming, as his ­supply-side advisers rarely did, that tax cuts would increase revenue in the short run. But he doesn’t acknowledge the extent to which Reagan’s assumptions, rather than the sounder views of his advisers, have become orthodoxy for right-wing politicians ever since.)

But “The Age of Reagan” demonstrates the strengths of partisan historiography as well. Because he takes for granted that Reagan’s presidency was successful, Hayward is free to explore, as few authors have, exactly how he did it. Reagan the wordsmith gets his due — the book is filled, appropriately, with extensive quotations from the Great Communicator’s addresses, television chats and press conferences. So does Reagan the savvy diplomat, whose rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev played a significant role in easing the cold war to an end. But Hayward’s most timely portrait is probably Reagan the wheeler-dealer, who came to office with the presidency’s influence at a modern nadir and maneuvered sweeping domestic legislation through a Congress that was often controlled by the opposition party. (“The Age of Reagan,” in other words, puts Rahm Emanuel’s challenges in perspective.)

Hayward’s ideological vantage point also leaves him well situated to analyze where and how Reagan’s record should be deemed a disappointment by conservatives. This critique extends from specific fumbles, like the mishandling of the Robert Bork nomination, to the broader failure to significantly reduce the size and scope of government.

Many liberals have passed from underestimating the Reagan revolution to overestimating — out of shock at its staying power, perhaps — how revolutionary it really was. Hayward has a clearer view. “Reagan successfully curbed the excesses of liberalism,” he concludes, but “he did not curb liberalism itself.” The angst of his opponents notwithstanding, Reagan’s budgets hardly touched the Great Society, let alone the New Deal.

The Right is quite incapable of discussing the Reagan who actually governed the United States, preferring instead the conservative of their own imaginations.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 5, 2009 8:25 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus