The Reagan centennial: Assessing the Gipper

Ronald Reagan was born 100 years ago next Sunday, and the upcoming centennial–as well as tributes from President Obama and other unlikely sources–is generating much commentary. A sample:

Reagan had less to do with the fall of Communism than his devotees believe today, Walter Shapiro says at Politics Daily, and conservatives have conveniently airbrushed his “tax-code apostasy.” Still, he was and remains a compelling figure. “What Reagan conveyed — especially when talking about Communism — was a moral earnestness that no other modern politician could match.”

Much of what has been written about the parallels between Reagan and Obama has focused the similarity of their first two years in office–historic recessions, deep unemployment and humbling losses in their first midterm elections, John Tierney says at The Atlantic. But what’s most interesting, he writes, is that Obama seems to be learning a lesson that guided Reagan’s presidency: Ideology may win elections, but pragmatism and compromise get results.

Not at all, says Ryan L. Cole at The American Spectator. Posthumous veneration of controversial presidents isn’t new–think Lincoln, Truman, FDR–but it comes with an unfortunate smoothing of their rough partisan edges. Republicans “should continue to remind themselves and the rest of the country that [Reagan’s] legacy, rather than monument to bipartisan pragmatism, is a testament to the righteousness of American conservatism.”

In fact, much of Reagan’s legacy is a testament to the hype of his supporters, argues Brendan Nyhan at The Huffington Post. The claim that Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” fundamentally changed the way Americans think about government just doesn’t hold up, he says. Data suggest that “Reagan’s election was a reflection, rather than a cause, of growing anti-government sentiment. Once Reagan took office and began to enact his agenda to reduce the size and scope of government, public demand for government actually grew.”