From the granite facade of Mount Rushmore to road signs and school buildings in communities across the country, the push is going strong to enshrine Ronald Reagan’s legacy in stone and steel — a fitting tribute, admirers say, to the man who ended communism in Europe and turned the political debate from Roosevelt’s New Deal to supply-side economics or, more simply, Reaganism.
More than two decades after he left office, the 40th president, whose 525 electoral votes in 1984 are an all-time record, is a hot topic for historians, who debate his place among the top chief executives of all time, and for lawmakers, who still spar over who best lays claim to his legacy.
“There is a growing sense that we need to reckon with Reagan, reckon with his legacy to understand the broad political culture over the past three decades,” said Matthew Dallek, a historian who has written about Reagan’s 1966 campaign for California governor. “His presidency and the movement he led and his ideas really matter.”
During Reagan’s eight years in office, inflation fell from its staggering late-1970s peak, relations with the Soviet Union thawed, the unemployment rate fell and incomes rose. But measured by other standards, income inequality grew and federal spending ballooned. Historians still debate how much credit Reagan should get for his management of foreign relations.
More than anything else, though, Reagan’s sunny disposition helped Americans recover from the cultural and economic shocks of the 1970s, and have made Reagan an icon for many.
“The last century, I believe, he would go down as the most effective president,” said former Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican who in the 1990s sponsored legislation trying to get Reagan’s face carved onto Mount Rushmore beside those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. “He certainly goes down as [among] a handful of presidents who have shaped this nation’s future.”
Some presidents belong to the historians — the debates over John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt have passed from the politicians to the academics — and others, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, remain firmly rooted in the political zeitgeist, picked apart in Congress and on talk shows.
Reagan, however, is claimed by historians and present-day politicians alike — as the proliferation of biographies and the ongoing debates in political weeklies attests.
It’s one of the ironies that the historians tend to focus on Reagan’s shortcomings and failures to live up to his rhetoric, while average Americans instead remember the sunny outlook and the bold rhetoric.
“If you look at the specifics of his agenda — cutting federal spending — well, he didn’t. … He readjusted [taxes] somewhat, but total federal tax takes were the same when he left office as when he came in,” said Michael Schaller, a professor at the University of Arizona who has just published a book, “Ronald Reagan.” “Somehow those details are forgotten, and what we tend to remember is the ceremonial president who tends to evoke a sense of pride and can-do spirit.”
“Parts of him have aged very well — the Reagan image. Even I, who disagreed with almost all the substance of his policies, have come to have a higher regard for his skills. I think those will last, you can’t deny them,” Mr. Schaller said. “The public Reagan is probably here to stay, like the public FDR, the public Teddy Roosevelt. That’s pretty well enshrined now. I think the substance of the policy is still much contested.”
Perhaps it’s because Reagan is still within the purview of present-day and historical debate that efforts to enshrine him have not been mammoth successes. His backers are trying to change that.
“We aren’t past the number of things that ought to be named after Reagan. We have a ways to go,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and chairman of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, whose goal is to have something named after Reagan in every one of the country’s 3,140 counties.
Mr. Norquist said 600 to 800 public works are named after Kennedy and civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr., and reaching those levels is his group’s next milestone. As of mid-January, members counted 107 Reagan listings.
“There are 100,000 teaching moments that flow from these things,” Mr. Norquist said. “Somebody who’s got something named after him is important.”
Opponents were enraged when the former president’s supporters pushed to have Reagan’s name added to Washington National Airport in commemoration of his birthday in 1998. They called it an unfitting tribute because Reagan, in one of the defining moments of his presidency, in 1981 fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers who refused his order to return to work.
During a fiery debate in Congress, some were harsher still.
“The average black American thinks Reagan is responsible for the rebirth of racism in this country,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat. The legislation to rename the airport passed the House by a 240-186 vote and the Senate by a 76-22 vote. President Clinton signed it into law.
Fights to add the Reagan name continued over whether other public works, such as the Washington area’s Metro subway system, would change their signage to reflect the new name of the airport.
At the height of the movement to commemorate Reagan, some wanted his visage on the dime or the $10 bill.
Historians say Reagan has benefited from a concerted effort by backers to defend his legacy, particularly against what they perceive as press coverage stacked against him. Former aides do that for every president, but Mr. Dallek, the historian, said Reagan’s backers are particularly adept and committed.
A 2005 Wall Street Journal survey of an ideologically balanced group of political scientists, historians and law professors rated Reagan as sixth successful among the nation’s 45 presidents. Liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1996 survey designated him as “average.”
Historians in a 2010 Siena College poll ranked the greatest and worst presidents. Reagan came in 18th, three behind Barack Obama and five behind Mr. Clinton. He scored high marks on leadership, communication ability and “luck,” but was rated near the bottom on “intelligence.”
Surveys of broader America taken over the past decade regularly find Reagan immensely popular among average voters. On polls asking who the greatest president was, Reagan’s name is almost always in the top three or five.
Whether he was great or merely average, his influence stretches to modern-day politics — so much so that Mr. Obama, on the campaign trail in 2008, said Reagan “changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” During his Hawaiian vacation in December, Mr. Obama read a biography of his predecessor, Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”
“In some ways both Obama and Clinton have had to deal with Reagan’s legacy,” Mr. Dallek said. “Yes, Obama’s supporters talk about the mess that George W. Bush left — whether it’s Afghanistan, deficits, there’s something to that. But if you take the longer view, I think Obama and Clinton are very much grappling with Reagan’s rhetorical commitment to smaller government and trying to figure out how they are going to pursue a more progressive agenda while still maintaining their hold on the country.”
Republicans’ assertions that Reagan is still the dominant figure of their party could be an understatement.
At last month’s debate among candidates for chairman of the Republican National Committee, the party’s central office, Mr. Norquist asked the contenders who their political hero was — “aside from President Reagan.”
Mr. Dallek, though, said the irony is that there’s not even consensus among his supporters about why he should be revered. Instead, Reagan is “a bit of a Rorschach test” for conservatives, who see what they want to see in his legacy.
Some Republicans, particularly those from the tea party wing of the party, appreciate his support of limited government, though they tend to look past the explosion of the federal bureaucracy during his two terms in office. Hawkish conservatives admire his foreign policy, especially his uncompromising rhetoric about communism.
Reagan also is benefiting from nostalgia of George W. Bush, another two-term Republican president who left office scorned by many conservatives.
In one of the stranger juxtapositions, Reagan also has become a favorite for those on the left who once reviled him but now paint him as a courteous and optimistic statesman willing to cross party lines to work with Democrats.
In a House floor debate January over campaign financing in presidential elections, Democrats pointed to Reagan’s participation in the public financing system as ammunition to use against House Republicans trying to dismantle the system. Rep. David E. Price, North Carolina Democrat, called Mr. Reagan “the best example of this program’s success.”
That prompted some head-scratching from Republicans.
“When I find myself on the floor listening to my colleagues on the other side declaring Ronald Reagan to be the patron saint of Democratic Party ideas, I am bemused a bit because I served here when Ronald Reagan was president, and I don’t recall those same words at that time,” said Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican.
In many ways, the fight over Reagan’s legacy has intensified because of the rise of the tea party movement.
For two decades, Reaganism was the goal of Republicans — a unifying theme and a governing philosophy. But over the past two years, some of that focus has shifted to the tea party, which is the first post-Reagan conservative governing philosophy to emerge.
“Reagan’s policies do not sync up with the tea party’s agenda or Sarah Palin’s agenda,” Mr. Dallek said. “Sarah Palin and the tea party are really to Reagan’s right. They really are more extreme, and so in that have made Reagan look tamer.”
Reagan defenders, though, say Reaganism and the tea party philosophy are one and the same. Mr. Reagan in his day also was unafraid to challenge “establishment” Republicans, including a sitting GOP president in Gerald Ford, in his drive to see his conservative ideas prevail.
“The tea party movement was parallel to the Reagan movement within the Republican Party, the party that wants limited government and free markets — that’s what the tea party means,” Mr. Norquist said.