A departure from Reagan’s conservatism
By Jonathan Hawley ’10 and Allison Swidriski ‘11
As the presidency of George W. Bush comes to an end, unavoidable comparisons will be made between the outgoing commander in chief and the hero of the modern conservative movement, Ronald Reagan. Jennifer Donahue, political director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, told the HPR that Reagan’s legacy lies in defining the “three legged stool [of foreign policy, the economy and social values issues] that has made up the main message for Republican candidates and staff since his presidency.” This Reagan Legacy continues to inspire politicians on both sides of the aisle, and has arguably become the unifying doctrine of the Republican Party.
However, the degree to which Reagan’s rhetoric and actions correlate on these three points varies, as does the degree to which President Bush has stood by Reagan’s policies. In most instances, Bush’s breaks with Reagan on a variety of issues from tax policy to the use of military force can be attributed to a different agenda rather than an inability to imitate Reagan. While only history can write the definitive comparison, Bush’s overall philosophy and its emphasis on an active use of the government and its resources, known as “compassionate conservatism,” has been the main source of his departure from the Reagan ideals.
Points of Departure
The disparity between the substance of the Reagan presidency and its legacy complicate comparisons; his foreign policy in particular was far from the glorified memory of it. Ernest R. May, the Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, told the HPR that some neoconservatives idealize early aspects of Reagan’s term, including his Evil Empire address and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s heightened defense spending, while wishing away the Nixon-like détente that dominated the later years.
“The rhetorical emphasis [of Reagan’s foreign policy] seemed military. But in practice, Reagan was, next to Eisenhower, the president least given to actually using military force,” May explained. He referenced Reagan’s withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon as an example of this reluctant use of engagement. This incongruity between the legacy and actuality can similarly be seen in Reagan’s tax policy, May asserted: “hardly anyone refers to the fact that, rhetoric notwithstanding, Mr. Reagan sponsored one of the largest tax increase packages of the postwar era.”
While the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates President Bush has been more inclined to use military action than was Reagan, there is nevertheless an inconsistency in his foreign policy too. Reagan’s discrepancy was between rhetoric and reality and for Bush it was an inconsistent focus over time. May contended that Bush’s first years in office saw an emphasis on the use of military force, while the second term shifted the focus to diplomacy. As a point of comparison, May used Harry Truman, who transitioned from a diplomatic dominance in foreign policy to the aggressive containment seen in Korea.
On the domestic front, Reagan is admired for cooperating with House Democrats on the Tax Reform Act of 1986, a model of bipartisan cooperation. In an interview with the HPR, Carl Cannon, author of Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy, explained “working with Democrats made Reagan a better legislator… He may have had to cooperate to get things done, but the fact is he did it.” Indeed, Reagan demonstrated much leadership through bipartisan cooperation, whereas Bush, after vowing to be a “uniter, not a divider,” effectively gave up after six months of working with a Democratic Congress. With a Republican Congress, Bush had few incentives to forge bipartisan relations.
The Compassionate Conservative
In many ways, though, these departures from the Reagan legacy were intentional on Bush’s part. As Donahue explained, “President Bush has actually been careful not to overtly emulate Reagan.” Instead, Bush has pursued his own agenda. Cannon pointed out that Bush took both Clinton and Reagan’s tax policies and made his own progressive tax cuts for both top and bottom income earners. Unlike Reagan, who dismissed education spending, Bush engaged in bipartisan cooperation by signing the No Child Left Behind Act. And whereas Reagan was hesitant to react to the AIDS epidemic, Bush increased funding for combating AIDS in Africa.
These departures from Reagan’s policies, with their emphasis on social welfare and an active use of the government, have contributed to Bush’s own legacy of compassionate conservatism. While Reagan may be seen as the father of the modern conservative movement, Bush’s interpretation of those long-standing ideals represents a marked change from the small-government conservative ideal of the past.
However the immediate legacies of both men at the ends of their presidencies constitute the most significant contrast between the two. Despite a second term slump Reagan impressively held onto public support, mostly through personal charisma. Withstanding blemishes like the Iran-Contra affair Reagan left office with an impressive 64 percent approval rating. President Bush’s average approval rating from a Gallup poll dated January to April 2008, by contrast, rests at 32 percent. On this point, Donahue maintained that the personality differences between The Great Communicator and Bush have been a major factor in the latter’s low approval ratings. Cannon, however, ascribed some of this difference to the national climate: “The country is more polarized today than it was when Reagan was in office. I’m not sure the idea of Reagan would sell today.”
Beyond popular opinion, history will also have a profound role to play in assessing Bush’s performance, with the end result being that Bush and Reagan may share some qualities after all. For instance, much criticism has been levied against Reagan for his perceived detachment from directives and initiatives, particularly the Iran-Contra affair. Journalists, notably Bob Woodward, have leveled similar charges of intellectual disengagement at President Bush. May, however, is unconvinced. As a result of conflicting opinions of Bush’s performance and the lack of historical perspective, May conceded that “we won’t know for a long time, if ever” whether Bush has been more or less engaged than Reagan.
For the immediate future it seems Bush’s compassionate conservatism will mark him as a departure from the Reagan ideals. But ultimately his legacy, and how it compares to the conservative ideal of Ronald Reagan, will change with the passage of time. As Donahue asserted, “History will treat him with a broader brush than real time does. His words will be put into context by historians and authors and will look different to Americans in hindsight.”