Monday, March 13, 2006

Fact versus nostalgia

On the way out of Memphis, I wrote a print column about John McCain and his embrace of old for George W. Bush, a necessary step in McCain's plan to woo the grassroots conservatives who have been hostile to him since the 2000 campaign. It's a bit of a mystery to me why those folks don't like McCain, given his overwhelmingly conservative voting record. Check out Paul Krugman's NYTimes column on that topic today. I'd link it, but he is behind the subscription wall.

Now, onto my other topic of the day:
Move, over Elvis. In Memphis this past weekend, there was another dead person who got the full hero worship treatment. Let's go right to the quotes.
Tennessee Republican party chairman Bob Davis: "Ronald Reagan once said..."
Tennessee congresswoman Marcia Blackburn: "Ronald Reagan was absolutely right..."
Ex-congressman J.C. Watts: "Ronald Reagan, in the decade of the '80s, he said..."
Virginia senator George Allen: "When Ronald Reagan was president..."
Kansas senator Sam Brownback: "I met Ronald Reagan once..."
House speaker Dennis Hastert: "What can you say about Ronald Reagan?"
You get the idea. Reagan seems more alive to these people than the guy who currently sits in the White House. It's not a good sign for the GOP, however, that they are wallowing in so much nostalgia; it means they are uncertain about the future, uncertain about how to close the gap between their convictions and their governing performance.
The problem, however, is that they spent three days worshipping the Reagan myth, not the Reagan record. They lauded Reagan as a small-government tax cutter, but there was nary a word about factual reality: Federal spending rose by 25 percent during Reagan's tenure, the size of the federal workforce actually grew, the only major agency that he managed to eliminate was the Civil Aeronautics Board, and he raised taxes in 1982.
Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, the size of the federal deficit (which Reagan denounced in his first unaugural as a threat to "our future and our children's future") actually doubled between 1980 and 1988.
The fact-challenged nostalgia encompassed a whole range of subjects. Brownback lauded Reagan as a pro-life icon (each person "is a sacred child of the living God...Reagan believed that as well"), yet nobody seemed to remember (or chose to remember) the actual truth, which is that Reagan as president never gave more than lip service to the anti-abortion movement. He never showed up at their annual rallies, preferring to phone in his greetings.
As conservatives at the time used to say, "It's not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it's just that he does not understand the ones he has."
Maybe the best evidence of GOP cognitive dissonance is the fact that Ronald Reagan's name adorns the Washington building that houses more federal bureaucrats (more than 5000) than any other place in town.
It's human nature to airbrush the flaws of a hero; the Democrats do this all the time with John F. Kennedy. But perhaps the Republicans could chart a more realistic future course if they adopt a more hardheaded view of their own past.