Reagan Legacy Burdens Bush and 2008 Candidates, Scholars Say

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

( - Ronald Reagan's historical contribution to the cause of human freedom is now widely heralded by historians and academic figures across the political spectrum, according to scholars who recently gathered for a symposium on Reagan at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

The academics noted that Reagan is now generally given credit for engineering the collapse of the Soviet empire and for re-energizing the U.S. economy.

They noted, however, that Reagan's rising reputation and expanding legacy have also become an "albatross" and a burden for President George Bush, who has suffered by way of comparisons that are largely unfair, said Paul Kengor, a Grove City College political science professor at the symposium.

Reagan lived to see the positive results of his policy initiatives come to fruition in his lifetime, said Kengor. But Bush, meanwhile, has acknowledged that his efforts in the Middle East are unlikely to yield tangible dividends in the near future or even while he's still living, Kengor said.

Even so, there are similarities between the two men that history will recognize in the fullness of time, Kengor said, adding that Bush, like Reagan, benefits from an "unwavering faith-based confidence."

Moreover, both presidents understood that America's struggle against totalitarian ideology, be it Soviet Communist or radical Islam, were ultimately "tests of will" and "spiritual resolve" that could not be abandoned before victory was attained, said Kengor.

But it is not just Bush who is overshadowed by the specter of Reagan. Presidential contenders in both major political parties have invoked his name to reach out to key constituents, said James Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), for instance, described Reagan in laudatory terms "as an agent of change," said Ceaser. Those comments were criticized by other top Democrats who don't want to expend political capital in giving Reagan credit for anything positive, Ceaser explained.

"Political legacy managers" who have a stake in diminishing Reagan's achievements have fallen back on two lines of argument, he said. They either make the claim that Reagan was somehow "lucky" or suggest that the appearance of success belied deeper problems, Ceaser said.

However, "a funny thing happened on the way to the history books," George Nash, a senior fellow with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, said in his presentation.

The 40th president's reputation began to rise as professors and historians became acquainted with the copious supply of personal letters Reagan produced in his pre-presidential years, said Nash.

In the past few years, "demeaning stereotypes" have given way to the reality that Reagan was an "intelligent, visionary thinker" who played a major role in the collapse of communism, he said.

Nevertheless, despite a mostly positive assessment of the Reagan years, some of the speakers offered up a few caveats.

Hugh Heclo, a professor of public affairs at George Mason University, said that the Iran-Contra affair involved an abuse of executive authority that continues to have ramifications for today's politics. Moreover, Reagan had certain "blind spots" and did not fully appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism, said Heclo.

With regard to civil rights, Reagan had a "tin ear," Stephen Knott, an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval War College, claimed in his talk. For the duration of his presidency no serious attempt was made to "reach out" to black Americans, he said.

However, Knott credited Reagan on foreign policy. Despite his flaws, Reagan will probably be remembered as a "near-great president" who confronted Soviet communism in a forceful, principled, and ultimately highly successful manner, Knott said.

In the realm of economics, Reagan's achievements have probably been understated, said Steven Hayward, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He told Cybercast News Service in a separate interview that the 40th president's polices led to "an explosion of capital formation" and a "revolution in the financial industry."

Although most polls show the Democratic Party with an advantage heading into the 2008 election cycle, it does not necessarily follow that the era of Reagan conservatism is over, Michael Barone, a senior writer with U.S. News and World Report , observed.

The vote in 2006 was more of a reaction to the Katrina Hurricane and the war in Iraq than it was an ideological statement, Barone said.

However, today's electorate is different than the one that has a living memory of Reagan's accomplishments, Barone said. The average median age for a voter in 1992 would be someone who was born in 1947, he said.

This means the electorate back then remembered the stagflation, gas lines, and foreign policy setbacks of the 1970s, but the same does not hold true for many contemporary Americans, Barone added. The average median age for a voter in today's electorate would be someone who was born in 1963.

Consequently, it is more challenging to make the case against the failures of big government and an "accomodationist" foreign policy in 2008, because voters are less familiar with the 1970s, said Barone. The voters from 16 years ago recall vividly when America was in trouble, and they remember the "recovery of the 1980s," he said.

In many respects, Reagan stood apart from other modern day presidents in that he felt no special urge to "run for ex-president" or seek exoneration in the eyes of history, said Nash, who is also a noted author and biographer.

Reagan instead had a sense of serenity about his own historical mark that starkly contrasts with that of former chief executives who have been complicit in the creation of the "hyperactive ex-presidency," Nash explained.

Regent University held a straw poll at the symposium asking attendees to check off their top choice for president. The results are as follows:

Among those who identified themselves as Republicans: Huckabee, 39 percent; Romney, 33.5 percent; McCain, 14 percent; and Paul, 6.7 percent.

Among those who identified themselves as Democrats: Obama 83.3 percent; Clinton, 8.3 percent.

Among those who identified themselves as Independents: Huckabee, 32.1 percent; McCain, 28.6 percent; Obama, 25 percent; Romney, 7.1 percent; Clinton, 3.6 percent; and Other, 3.6 percent.

Over half of the almost 500 people in attendance participated in the poll. Ages ranged from high school students to those who identified themselves as 55 years or older.

Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

E-mail a comment or news tip to Kevin Mooney

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

MRC Store