This would be the third post in a day on the concept of "the best" in political leadership. Previously I wrote about Mussolini and Manmohan Singh. The topic for the moment is closer to home: this time, Ronald Reagan, as limned in Will Bunch's Tear Down this Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future--and let it be said from the outset that it is not my purpose here to make Reagan out to be another Mussolini (or Singh, either, for that matter). But Bunch does help to clarify just what Reagan was, and what not.
For starters, there are a couple of points on which I suppose almost everyone would agree: Reagan near perfect pitch for catching the mood of the electorate, and for articulating a popular visions. In this respect, as many of his friends and his enemies would agree, he belong on the dais with Roosevelt and Churchill (with Hitler also, perhaps, but I shouldn't confuse things).
But the next point about Reagan--often lost in the undebrush--is that he was the consummate pragmatist. He made deals: he made them as governor, and he made them as president. Corrrespondingly, he never really tackled any issue on which he figured he might not gain traction with the voters.
And third--this might be most misunderstood--he completely grasped the disconnect in the mind of the electorate between substance and cosmetics. This last point explains so many important aspects of the Reagan record.
As Bunch so well documents, the iconography remembers Reagan as the avatar of small government when in fact he was nothing of the sort. In terms of actual performance--not cosmetics--on virtually every significant measure, Reagan's economic record is an affront to the free market vision. Government grew bigger on his watch, in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, and also of number of civilian employees (he eked out a tiny win in terms of percentage of GDP, but it was almost invisible). And as so many have notd so often, the budget deficit increased by a factor of (more than) four.
We could make a similar point about "the social agnda"--abortion, gay rights, establishment of religion, that sort of thing. On these issues, Reagan surely talked the talk, but he almost never walked the walk.
Perhaps less well understood, there is the same disconnect on foreign policy. Reagan's record set a modern standard for bellicosity. Yet on closer scrutiny, his record on the ground was pretty tame. A few days ago I suggested, only part flippantly--that Reagan (unlike Obama) deserved a Nobel Peace prize, for his role in ending the Cold War. But not for the reasons his claque likes to spout: not for his aggressive sabre-rattling and his humoungous toys-for-boys military budgets. Rather he deserves it for what he achieved in spite, not because, of his supporters' greatest desires. I wonder, is there a Nobel Prize for making your adversaries look like idiots? Perhaps we can create one, and let the first entry be posthumous.
But supposing you accept this view of the record, you still haven't gone very far in deciding his place as a president. So granted, he won the Cold War. But he did so by a major act of betrayal to his own base--for this he becomes a hero. Or go back to the economic record. As one who favors a smaller government (and who remains grateful to Bill Clinton for working to give us one), I suppose I'd have to say he was a failure. Yet I suppose it is this very failure that would move some on the left to grant him just a trace of forgiveness. On the the social issues, I'd put the point exactly the other way round: on these issues, I am actually delighted that he was so full of hot air, so unwilling to put his money where his mouth was.
All of this leads to a convoluted record at best, although this might be as much as you are going to be able to do with any major political figure. But it still leaves you pining for something more. Specifically--I am going into deep water here--you find yourself thinking about all the issues left on the table in the 80s; all the items on which we could have used some leadership, and didn't get any.
This is, as I suggest, highly uncertain. For when any voter says he wants "leadership," what he means is that he wants a politician who will yank the debate on in his favored direction, no matter what the populace might think. Roosevelt gave us "leadership" into World War II, and thank heavens for that. Bush 43 gave us "leadership," all right, and look where it got us. And, oh yes, Mussolini gave the Italians "leadership," and got them into a mess big enough to make Bush 43 look good.
Indeed, you could probably put together quite a list of politicians who were popular in their own times precisely because they played Dr. Feelgood and did not provide the leadership they might have provided (my own favorite example would be Britain's sometimes-beloved Stanley Baldwin--indeed you might say that Churchill's leadership in 1940 was directed at getting Britain out of the mess that Baldwin's non-leadership had left them in.
As I guess I've made clear, I think Reagan's on-the-ground record is mixed, but on the whole, not nearly as bad as his critics made out. But in terms of what he could have done, oh boy, there is so much more.
Addendum: While putting this together, I ran across a post by Andrew Samwick who develops this last point in just exactly the direction I would like it to go.
Afterthought: In fairness to Bunch, his book taken as a whole is more ambitious than I make it out to be. He appraises the record of the "real" Reagan. But also and perhaps more important, he does a wonderful job of recounting the narrative of the "Reagan reinvention"--the refashioning of the last decade that has transformed him from a somewhat mediocre president into a plaster saint.