It’s been well over a month since I started reading Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth. It’s an important book and I learned a few things from it. But I come at it from the perspective that Presidents are not very important when it comes to the things we give them the most credit for. In the case of both Reagan and Clinton, they get credit for economic booms created by the Federal Reserve. In the case of Reagan, it was Paul Volcker cutting interest rates, after having brought inflation down by more or less destroying the economy. (There was also the aid of international fuel prices going down, which also had nothing to do with Reagan.) In the case of Clinton, it was mostly Alan Greenspan’s heterodox theories (which turned out to be right) that said that 5% unemployment was not full employment. So presidents: meh.
In international affairs, presidents can have a much bigger effect. And actually, Bunch makes an excellent case that Reagan’s openness to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union on nuclear reductions was a profound and positive legacy. Of course, that’s not what people think about Reagan and the Soviet Union. The myth is that Reagan spent vast sums of money on the military (true) causing the Soviets to keep up (not true) and thus bankrupting them (also not true). Bunch doesn’t talk about it, but people always get the Gorbachev causation backwards. It wasn’t that he liberalized the government; it was that the government decided to liberalize itself, so it elected him.
Bunch spends the end of the book at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. It gave me an idea for a documentary. I could go to all of the presidential libraries and scoff at them. It would not be partisan at all, because I think they are all fakers. Ultimately, that’s a bit of the problem with Tear Down This Myth. The truth is that we mythologize all of our presidents. And I really don’t think the fundamental problem with the Republican Party is that they don’t understand who Reagan really was. Because here’s the thing: all politicians exist in their environment. We all know that Richard Nixon as he existed in 1972 would fit very well in the modern Democratic Party. But we also know that if Nixon were alive in today’s political environment, he would be someone like Scott Walker—or maybe worse: Louie Gohmert.
So who would Reagan be if he were around today? Well, his rhetoric is most like that of Rand Paul if you ask me. He would absolutely be against any increase in taxes. He would absolutely be for gutting the social safety net. He would be (as he was) a clever racist politician. The only real difference I see is that Reagan would be more of an interventionist. But I fully expect Rand Paul to devolve on that issue.
The question that Bunch never grapples with is the effect of Reagan’s rhetoric on today’s Republican Party and I think it is about right. The big problem is not what Reagan means to Republicans. The big problem is what he means to Democrats. From Clinton on, they’ve done nothing but praise him. Reservedly, but clearly. Now is this just good politics because Reagan was so popular? I don’t think so. FDR was hugely popular but you won’t find any Republicans mentioning his name without spitting afterwards. And now Bill Clinton is very popular, but did any of the Republican candidates for president talk about how they wanted to be like Clinton or how they wanted to “end corporate welfare as we know it!”?
Bunch does spend a bit of time on this question. But overall, his message is that modern Republicans don’t understand who Reagan really was. Well, they do. When they talk about how he was a tax cutter, they aren’t talking about how he was a cutter of everyone’s taxes. They don’t care about everyone. I discussed this in some depth last month, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. He was their man! The modern Republicans understand this and Bunch just doesn’t.
What we need are Democrats running for president who say, “When Reagan became president, this country went way off course. He built up our military to a ridiculous level, even though the Soviet Union was crumbling. He cut aid to the poor. He gave unprecedented amounts of money to the rich. He pretty much destroyed private sector unions. He started a great shift of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is our job to reverse this. It is our job to go back to the days of a strong middle class. Reagan had an idea for this country. It was worth a try. But he was wrong. And now we must fix the problems he created.”
The problem with the Reagan myth is not that Republicans believe it. It is that Democrats believe it.
 Years ago, I wouldn’t have used the word “elect.” But the truth is that every country has its Overton Window. Gorbachev was elected. And although it is true that a Soviet Ronald Reagan would not have ever been taken seriously, it’s also true that today, an American Gorbachev would never be taken seriously. Americans greatly overestimate just how much democracy we have.