Reagan and the Conservative Soul


Today, I'm starting a week of book club emails about "The Conservative Soul," featuring the smartest reader critiques, as promised. Here's one reader:

My only criticism of your line of argument is your view of Reagan. Undoubtedly, he was a prime example of the sort of limited-government, pragmatic, grown-up conservatism you advocate; but I think it's scarcely deniable that the Christian right first became active politically under him. Indeed, their efforts contributed to Reagan's election success, and their support did find in-roads into his policy (his neglect of the AIDS epidemic, for example). In many ways Reagan is very far from Burkean and Oakeshottian conservatism - far away from Goldwater, even - not the least in his appeasement and empowerment of Christian fundamentalists, making them into a political force for the first time in American history, etc.

And something tells me that Burke wouldn't have endorsed Reagan's particular brand of Cold War conservatism; I mean, I'd like to think that Edmund Burke would have lambasted Iran-Contra, not cheered it on. As Conor Cruise O'Brien states in his great "thematic biography" of Burke - conservatism as a synthesis of evangelical Christianity, military patriotism, and unchecked free-market values is something Burke would hardly have endorsed.

Reagan did indeed presage some of the worst aspects of today's degenerate Republicanism. His deficit Tcscover_25 spending, his subversion of constitutionalism in Iran-Contra, his coded appeal to Southern bigotry when beginning his campaign, and his dithering on the HIV epidemic are all fore-runners of later abuse. But they were mild in comparison to Bush.

Reagan would never have signed the biggest increase in entitlement spending since LBJ; Reagan's domestic spending record was far better than Bush's; Reagan raised taxes when he felt it necessary; he reformed the tax system in his second term; he vetoed pork; his Supreme Court nominees were diverse; he would never have gone to war in the reckless, unplanned way the Bush administration did in Iraq; and his foreign policy was a blend of deep conviction but also pragmatism, as he reached out to an imploding Soviet Union in his final years. Even on Iran-Contra, he eventually fessed up, and apologized. You can see the seeds of future conservative self-destruction and hubris, but Reagan's record, to my mind, is on balance, a conservative one in the best sense. His undoing of excessive government control of the economy and his defeat of the Soviet Union dwarf everything else.