I did not share most of his politics, but I can acknowledge that Ronald Reagan was the most significant U.S. president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He brought conservatism into the mainstream and many of his politics did much to prepare America for the challenges of the next century. The man had his flaws, but he bonded with his people and his memory does not diminish with the years.
To Republicans, he embodies character, vision, and greatness. While he swept to office as the most ideologically driven president in a half-century, he governed in a most pragmatic way. Most notably, his conservative mantra of balanced budgets and reducing the size of government quickly gave way to compromise and incrementalism. By the time he left office, Reagan had never balanced a budget and defence spending grew as never before under his watch.
Reagan would probably be uncomfortable with the GOP style of today. The political climate in America today is very personalized. We are far from the days of Reagan and Tip O’Neill sharing a joke and a drink on the way to finding common ground.
Today’s Republicans are nonetheless wise to flaunt his legacy because his was a way to put America ahead of party politics. If the Republicans wish to recapture the White House someday, Reagan’s optimism, clarity and openness to finding middle ground is a better formula for success than polarization and exclusion.
Democrats are understandably more ambivalent about the Gipper than their Republican counterparts. He did more to demonize liberalism than any GOP leader in history. Unlike Reagan, Eisenhowser and Nixon, two conservative predecessors, did little to dismantle the legacy of FDR. (Ironically, Reagan was once a FDR supporter—before he was elected declaring that “governement is not the solution; government is the problem.”)
Today, Barack Obama lauds Reagan as a transformational president and has actively promoted Reagan’s legacy by reading Lou Cannon’s acclaimed biography of him. Moreover, of late, Obama seems to be taking a page out of Reagan’s style of governing, with the corresponding spoils (higher approval ratings).
This Sunday will mark Ronald Reagan’s 100th anniversary. Like him or not, this two-term President was a major contributor to bringing the Cold War to an end that favoured the West. His optimism, his humility and his steadfast character made him a leader that transcended partisan politics. He left office more popular than any of his predecessors. Today, he is a model for the current President. That in itself keeps him relevant 23 years after he left office.