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Terry Newell Headshot

Remembering Ronald Reagan -- The Man Not the Icon

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It's not hard to understand why conservatives would be angry with a president who has dramatically increased the federal debt, passed multiple tax increases, championed immigration reform, and selected a female moderate-at-best Supreme Court justice. Such a president could hardly expect his approval ratings to do much better than 50 percent. On this 100th anniversary of the birth of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, a president who has violated conservative principles so thoroughly has to be particularly enraging. Except that the president just described was Ronald Reagan.

Between 1980 and 1990, the gross federal debt more than tripled, from $907.7 billion to $3.233 trillion. During Reagan's presidency, he signed nine bills into law that had significant tax consequences; seven of those nine have had a net impact of increasing taxes, and one of them increased Social Security taxes. In 1986, President Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, one of whose provisions granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. When he signed the bill in front of the Statue of Liberty, he said:

"The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."

Reagan also nominated Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman to join the Supreme Court. And his average approval rating as president was 57 percent (dipping to as low as 42 percent after two years into his first term).

It is hard to imagine conservatives championing a presidential candidate today who proposed these things that Ronald Reagan actually did as president. That should give conservatives pause and should make all of us question the shibboleths with which we define points on the political spectrum and approach evaluating presidential candidates and presidents. The same could be said for liberals, who would seem to shun any candidate who would continue a big tax cut for the wealthy and an unpopular war as Obama has done.

Reagan the man and Reagan the conservative icon are not necessarily the same thing, any more than Obama the man and Obama the liberal standard bearer are the same thing. That is good, for any president so predictable in his public acts as to never sway from orthodoxy is champion of a philosophy, not leader of a nation.

We need presidents marked with flexibility. It would be nice to see such flexibility in voters, pundits, and political partisans too. Ronald Reagan, of course, was no bleeding heart liberal. He took the hardest of lines against the Soviet Union as well as the air traffic controllers' union. Nor was he without serious faults. Iran-Contra happened on his watch, and he believed in "supply-side economics" which seemed to supply debt more than anything else. Yet he was a man with a heart, who could see that to proclaim it is "morning in America" required having a dream that drew on the best of America and Americans.

If we wish to remember President Reagan on his 100th birthday, we could do no better than to recall that he did what he felt was right for America, even if that meant angering some in his own party. In short, he knew that being conservative meant being liberal enough to know what to conserve and what to change.