Almost every speech delivered by Republican candidates for the presidency has evoked a yearning to return the party to the glory of the Reagan years. While Reagan has virtually been declared a saint by the Republicans, I wonder how wise it is to constantly invoke his legacy.
Most voters under the age of 30 will have, at best, fuzzy recollections of the Reagan presidency. A 30-year-old in 2008 would have been 10 years old in 1988, Reagan's last year as president. Sure, plenty has been written and documented about Reagan's presidency, but there's a huge difference between reading about it and living it. For younger voters, Reagan is an abstraction, the way Kennedy is now, or F. D. Roosevelt. If young voters have a choice between a candidate who promises a return to an abstraction and a candidate who promises to mend existing problems, the conservatives might serve themselves better by toning down the Reagan-worship.
While Reagan was dubbed "the Great Communicator" in part due to his ability to deliver rousing and inspiring speeches (note that many pundits have compared Barack Obama's oratory skills to those of Reagan), he wasn't actually the right-wing hardliner that many Republicans seem to choose to remember him as being. For one thing, Reagan understood that to advance his agenda, he sometimes had to make compromises with his political opponents. He also understood that America's military, awesome as it is, has its limits in terms of what it can achieve. Most military actions under Reagan, while controversial, were calculated to deliver specific results and were definitely winnable; e.g. the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. Reagan had sent a contingent of Marines into Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force. In the wake of a devastating suicide bombing attack on the Marines' barracks there in 1983 that killed 241 American servicemen, he withdrew the Marines. Reagan's decision to withdraw would undoubtedly be at great odds with modern Republicans who insist that American forces remain in the midst of an Iraqi civil war virtually indefinitely.
Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, writing at Townhall.com, has some similar thoughts on Republican Reagan-worship. Thomas's piece is brief and it is worth reading. Thomas wrote that, "Today's conservatives... can't seem to break with the past and the nostalgia for the Reagan years. (snip) Too many modern conservatives seem embedded in a concrete slab of pessimism, preferring to go over a bridge and drown rather than 'compromise' their 'principles.' If you can't get elected, your principles can be talked about on the lecture circuit, but are unlikely to be adopted in Washington."
Evidence of modern conservatives' unwillingness to compromise is very evident in the right's reluctance to embrace John McCain as the Republican candidate for president. The logic of "McCain disdain" eludes me because I can't think of another political figure on the right side of the American political sphere who has a broader appeal among independents and even some Democrats. Everybody knows McCain and while many people have some acute aversions to many of his policy positions, he is generally well liked and trusted. Conservatives are angry that McCain isn't the most conservative candidate, living or dead. As to whether McCain is a real conservative, Cal Thomas had this to say, "Was Reagan (a true conservative)? Reagan campaigned as a tax cutter. He cut taxes, but he also raised them. He promised conservative judges and spoke of his opposition to abortion, yet named two justices to the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy) who voted to uphold Roe v. Wade. Against the advice of some, Reagan deployed Marines to Lebanon and saw them murdered by a homicide bomber. Reagan engaged in an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran. (snip) If conservatives knew in advance these things about Reagan, would they have voted for him in such numbers?"
Thomas ended his piece with a dash of advice for conservatives, and a stern warning too: "If conservatives really want to win, they will adopt new ideas based on old principles. Conservatives are in danger of losing the coming election and future ones because they have not reinvented themselves for a new era."