As president, Ronald Reagan did not always please his conservative supporters, but with the benefit of hindsight, they say his leadership was vital to the success of their movement.
“He was not God, but he did have convictions that were ‘unlobbyable’ and a vision for America, which obsessed him and drove him to success,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, which supported Mr. Reagan in 1980 and ‘84. “He put the moral and social issues of our time on the front burner, where they have stayed.”
One common conservative criticism of the Reagan presidency is that the Republican administration failed to cut spending and reduce the size of the federal government, which had been key campaign promises for Mr. Reagan in 1980.
“A lot of conservatives say they wish he had done more to cut the size of government,” said Bob Heckman, who headed one of the largest pro-Reagan political action committees in the 1980s.
Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation, said this was a reflection of Mr. Reagan’s personality.
“You read his speeches as governor of California and then as president and realize his greatest attribute was also a fault,” Mr. Feulner said. “He was such a nice guy that he didn’t want to say no, and so there was too much spending in Sacramento and then in Washington. The right signals [about spending] weren’t always there. …
“But no one is perfect, and I would still grade him with a 98 or 99,” Mr. Feulner added.
The conservative faithful wondered why, if Mr. Reagan “was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the military and missile defense to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, why not take on a domestic issue like Social Security?” said Reagan campaign media consultant Tom Edmonds.
It was a matter of priorities, Mr. Edmonds said.
“Rolling back social programs did not have the same priority for him as rolling back communism and turning America around,” he said. “He was smart enough to know he couldn’t do everything, so he put his efforts into his priorities.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, agreed, saying: “Presidents have only so much time and power. He chose to focus on foreign policy, tax cuts, appointing conservative judges and promoting economic growth, all of which made his re-election possible.”
Few conservatives in the 1980s imagined that the Reagan policy of confronting the Soviet Union would lead to the collapse of what Mr. Reagan called “the evil empire.”
“It is very clear now that, while he always spoke of negotiations with the Soviets, underneath he was doing everything imaginable to bring down the evil empire,” said Paul M. Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation. “He had faith he could accomplish that, while much of the conservative movement thought he was utopian.”
Former Reagan administration official Donald J. Devine agreed that, when Mr. Reagan gave his famous 1987 “tear down this wall” speech at the Berlin Wall, not even hard-line conservatives thought the wall would really come down, “but Reagan actually believed it would come down — and it did.”
Germans dismantled the barrier in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Mr. Reagan’s influence was crucial, Mr. Weyrich said.
“I had no idea how he had impacted the entire Soviet empire until I began to go there a few months after the president left office,” he said. “I found that he had given opponents of the communists hope.”
If Mr. Reagan inspired hope in opponents of communism, leaders of the Soviet Union were impressed by his determination in 1981, when he fired 12,000 air-traffic controllers who were striking illegally.
His secretary of state, George Schultz, once called that the best foreign-policy decision Mr. Reagan ever made. It was not, however, without political risk.
“But what if there had been an airline disaster after he fired them? No one would have defended his action then,” Mr. Edmonds said. “He would have been crucified in the press and by Democrats for having made the wrong decision. He acted out of principle.”
Mr. Heckman says fellow conservatives still undervalue Mr. Reagan’s contribution when they say that he “captured” the Republican Party and moved it to the right.
“In fact, Reagan saved a Republican Party that was falling apart and actually transformed it into a party of ideas, with a vision of what America should look like in the future,” Mr. Heckman said.
At the same time, Mr. Edmonds says, it is a mistake to typecast Mr. Reagan.
“Reagan didn’t fall into a stereotypical category,” Mr. Edmonds said. “Most Reagan positions were conservative but he didn’t just embrace them with a knee jerk. He had his own positions on all the issues of the day.”