The Problem: Myth-making
President Reagan would have turned 102 this month. Since his presidency and especially since his death, a funny thing has happened. The Republican Party has simultaneously gotten much more conservative than President Reagan or the GOP of the 1980s and co-opted Reagan's name as their beacon of hope and their symbol of conservatism. The fact that President Reagan would have nearly no chance of being nominated by today's GOP has been noted, discussed, and debated in detail. But this has not stopped the GOP from talking out of both sides of its proverbial mouth, creating a false prophet out of President Reagan in order to misrepresent and moderate the GOP's real views. It is a sign of how far removed today's Republican Party is from its roots.
A similar refrain has taken hold with the passing of Margaret Thatcher. The GOP has been falling all over itself to beatify Margaret Thatcher in the mythos of the GOP, enshrining her next to President Reagan in an elephant-shaped mausoleum in the hearts and minds of the Republicans everywhere. Unfortunately, the Baroness, like Old Gipper, lacks the necessary conservative gumption of today's Republican Party, making her unsuitable for such a role as Republican prophet.
This is Republican myth-making at its finest -- creating conservative crusaders out of the memories and legacies of the former prime minister and president, redefining their political lives as people who would want to put the brakes on the much-discussed but hard-to-find 'tyrannical' agenda of President Obama. Unfortunately for them, this is folly. The decidedly moderate (and sometimes liberal) records of Thatcher and Reagan have been fully fleshed out as of late -- from raising taxes and supporting environmental protection to gun control legislation and health care reform.
The Question: Why Thatcher and Reagan?
The GOP use Thatcher and Reagan as symbols of their conservative crusade but gloss over the messy, irreconcilable contradictions. So why the myth-making? If they stood for issues that the Republican Party of 2013 categorically rejects, why prop up the names and legacies of Thatcher and Reagan? In the wake of Thatcher's death, analysts have pointed out the discord between the GOP today and the conservatism of the 1980s. But that still doesn't answer why the GOP needs these two false prophets.
It must be because today's GOP is in thoroughly uncharted territory, set adrift by a Tea Party-inspired right-wing fantasy. They have no universally adored and worshipped figures who share their views. President George W. Bush was a disappointment, the current congressional line-up is sitcom-level funny, and the 2008 and 2012 crops of Republican presidential contenders were lackluster and divisive. Thus, the Republican Party has adopted a few popular conservatives from an age of reason long since left behind.
The Answer: Misdirection
The GOP has managed to lock down some truly beloved figures whose names and virtues they can praise, while, at the same time, hammering Democrats and moderate Republicans for positions shockingly similar to those at the ideological core of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. In other words, the GOP has stripped the ideological history and legacy of two honorable and influential public servants and uses their names for expedient political ends.
The inherent contradiction is essential. The Republican Party is currently invoking the names Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in pursuit of policies that the late politicians fought against, issues ranging from climate change to fiscal policy. And this is more than just disingenuous. It labels these former world leaders extremists. When in reality, they were pragmatic, conciliatory, patriotic, and ready to compromise. This is a fake-out, plain and simple. Conservative tongues drip with quotations of Reagan and Thatcher, and conservative walls are plastered with their smiling faces, all to misdirect our ears and our eyes away from the GOP's all too conservative goals.
And this is important. More important than simply protecting the good names of devoted public servants. It serves to highlight just how far the GOP has come. From pragmatic conservatives to unbending ideologues. Pledges against raising taxes, smear campaigns against changes to a broken health care system, an unwillingness to admit the reality of global climate change, and bucking the 90 percent of citizens who support universal background checks on gun purchases. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Unwavering and unapologetic, Republicans have drifted leagues from the conservative era of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher. And instead of owning their ultra-conservative views and lumping Reagan and Thatcher in with the rest of their liberal and socialist enemies, the GOP has learned to whitewash and soften its own image by referencing the legacies of a type of conservative rarely seen today -- the kind deserved of respect and admiration, even if you disagreed with them.
Maybe the pendulum will swing back in the coming decades and conservatives will once again recall the legacies of Reagan and Thatcher without glossing over their political legacies. But until then, pay attention to the GOP's veneration of conservative icons, because it may be the classic magician's trick of misdirection, where first you see reason, logic, and pragmatism and then you don't.