Why Reagan Is King of the Conservative Heap

The former president owes much of his popularity to his success in uniting his party.
Photographer: Rogers/Express/Getty Images

Why are Republicans so obsessed with Ronald Reagan?

Jonathan Ladd has an interesting post today explaining that Reagan was unique in successfully consolidating all the strands of modern conservativism during his tenure; Democrats adopted modern liberalism over a series of presidencies.

Republican Reagan worship is overdetermined, however.
Look at the modern Republican presidents. Only Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower are plausible targets for hero-worship. Richard Nixon mostly remains a disgrace. Gerald Ford is a footnote. George H.W. Bush was defeated after one term; George W. Bush isn't quite Herbert Hoover, but he was unpopular and is defined mostly by his failures. And while Ike deserves every plaudit he gets, his presidency wasn't particularly suited to latter-day hero-worship.

Democrats have three popular presidents to choose from: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Beyond that, Harry Truman was unpopular while in office, but his reputation among historians and the public was revived long ago. Jimmy Carter is a less likely target for a revival, but the other unpopular Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, is a far more complicated case.

Simply put, the Democrats have a bigger slate of candidates.

Fate also expanded the field for Democrats. There's just nothing on the conservative side to match liberal martyrs Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. If Barry Goldwater or Robert Taft had been assassinated, it's easy to imagine they would have a larger place in the Republican firmament.

And Democrats have a lot of congressional heroes. But between fewer congressional majorities and fewer master legislators (perhaps because they aren't as interested in writing laws), there aren't as many obvious first-tier Republicans. Even when it comes to vice presidents, Democrats can point to Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale; Republicans get Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle.

In addition, Reagan is one of four modern presidents to have a post-presidential industry dedicated to improving his reputation (Kennedy, Nixon and Carter are the the others, the latter two mainly consisting of one-person efforts). To some extent, the existence of an aggressive effort to boost Reagan's reputation could be just an effect of his ideological stature (an argument that bolsters Ladd's claims). Perhaps, but remember that Camelot had nothing to do with ideology.

And it may be crass to say it, but the way Reagan died has helped his reputation. It was considered unseemly to criticize a former president who couldn't answer back after his withdrawal from public life in 1994 and until his death in 2004. That's a long time to be at least partially shielded; it means an entire generation grew up with an unusually one-sided view.

So I think Ladd gives only part of a larger set of reasons why Republicans remain obsessed with a president who has been out of office for 25 years.

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