In 1964, Ronald Reagan said, “The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.” This tendency is on full display as the left tries to redefine the Gipper as the respectable conservative alternative to today’s purportedly “extremist” Tea Party movement.
On Sunday, ABC’s Christiane Amanpour waxed nostalgic on the “long and venerable tradition of conservatism in this country” as exemplified by President Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr. “People are looking at the Tea Party and saying this is not conservatism as we knew it but it’s extreme,” she speculated. The supposed radicalism of today stands in contrast with what she called the “intellectual conservatism” of the Reagan era.
This left-wing promotion to intellectual respectability would come as a surprise to Reagan, who was called a lot of things by liberals but never “intellectual.” In general, liberals viewed the Gipper with feelings ranging from condescension to disdain. He was called an extremist, a simpleton, a kook, a Cold War throwback, reactionary, superficial, fanatic and racist. He was either too old to hold office, too crazy, or both.
Reagan fought the extremist tag from his first run for office in California in 1966. Democratic Gov. Pat Brown’s campaign characterized Reagan as a washed-up movie actor who was captive of radical ideas far from the mainstream. Liberals thought Reagan was a joke, but the joke was on them when he won the election. President Ford’s campaign followed the same playbook when Reagan challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976. The bad blood this tactic generated cost Ford enough conservative support to lose a close race to Jimmy Carter.
In the 1980s, the charges of extremism intensified. When Reagan secured the Republican nomination, Vice President Walter F. Mondale said “his record on everything … is an abomination” and predicted Reagan would “fall like a crowbar - awfully fast.” The New Republic called Reagan an “ex-movie actor, darling of the rabid right … an international innocent, and an economic extremist.” Columnist Mary McGrory called Reagan a “shallow, nuclear cowboy.”
Critics, though, had to contend with Reagan’s unquestionable popularity, which was written off to charisma. Shortly after the 1980 election, Bill Moyers scoffed that Reagan was elected “because we want to feel good.” But as the Gipper told reporters who were trying to make him out to be simultaneously a Machiavellian ideologue and genial dunce, “Fellows, you can’t have it both ways. [I] can’t be a wild-eyed kook and a square.”
The silliest examples of Reagan revisionism try to compare him to President Obama. In 2009, Democratic consultant Bob Shrum wrote that in Reagan’s first inaugural speech, he “seems less like today’s Republicans than like Barack Obama declaring: ‘Yes, we can.’ ” There can be no doubt that were Mr. Reagan on the political scene today, his response to Obama’s “Yes, we can” would be “Oh no, you don’t.” The left’s attempt to recast Reagan in opposition to contemporary conservatism exposes ignorance of both Reagan and conservatism.