|Reagan's legacy at crossroads|
25 years after oath, his agenda endures. But is the GOP adrift?
By William Neikirk
Tribune senior correspondent
Published January 21, 2006
WASHINGTON -- On a warm Jan. 20 morning precisely 25 years ago, Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in an inaugural ceremony that served as the catalyst for the conservative movement that now dominates each branch of the federal government.
Whether it's tax cuts, deregulation, a strong defense or judicial and cultural conservatism, Reagan policies have become firmly embedded throughout American society. "Reagan is more powerful today than when he was president," said Martin Anderson, one of his White House advisers.
There is fresh evidence throughout the capital. Two young lawyers who worked for Reagan--Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito--are expected to have a major impact on the nation's legal system for many years, as a result of being named to the court by President Bush. Conservative Republicans hold leadership posts in the House and Senate. And Bush's politics seem much more closely tied to Reagan than to those of Bush's father, who was Reagan's vice president.
But that movement is now at a juncture nearly as important as Reagan's election, with the continued power of "Reaganism" called into question. The blunt force of Bush's defense policy in Iraq is being challenged. And rising government expenditures and political corruption in Congress have combined to vex Republicans with midterm elections rapidly approaching.
Some conservatives are worried.
"We're at the biggest crossroads since Reagan won the nomination in 1980," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a fervent Reagan disciple, said in an interview. "We face very large challenges and we have no absolute proof yet that we are going to take the right position in meeting those challenges."
Part of the problem is a fracturing from within. Business-oriented pragmatists, deficit hawks, cultural conservatives, Christian activists, libertarians, neoconservatives -- all have different agendas, and all claim the mantle of Reagan, sometimes in the name of things he never accomplished, such as balancing the budget.
"The Reagan legacy is very vulnerable because George W. Bush has embraced it so wholeheartedly," said Michael Genovese, political science professor at Loyola Marymount University. "Bush is the model, not the father, of the legacy. So much of the Reagan legacy is dependent on the Bush legacy."
Even more than his own father, who followed Reagan in the White House, the president has adopted Reagan's ideas, cutting taxes, building up the military because of a terrorist threat and embracing a conservative social and cultural agenda. He also has pushed to enhance the power of the presidency, as Reagan did during his two terms.
Yet to conservatives such as Gingrich and Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), the GOP has strayed too far from the Reagan agenda.
"It is the abandonment of Reagan's policies that has gotten us in trouble," said Feeney, who is sharply critical of spending increases in recent years with the GOP in charge of government.
"Reagan was an ideologue," said Mallory Factor, a New York businessman who heads a political group that contributes to conservatives. "He had a simple message and simple programs. We have lost that in our society." He blamed GOP leaders in Congress who have "drunk the water out of the Potomac" River and, he added, lost touch with Reagan's ideas.
"If we're not the party of reform and we try to run as the party of pork, we'll lose," Gingrich said. "Reagan was about reform. He was not about pork."
Legacy in judiciary
Within the federal judiciary, the Reagan influence has enormous reach, culminating with the selection of Roberts as chief justice and Alito's expected confirmation.
Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University, said the federal judiciary is increasingly taking a right-leaning direction with more conservative nominations over the years.
Edwin Meese, Reagan's attorney general, said he believes the GOP will survive the current challenges and that Reaganism will continue as a powerful influence in American politics. So did Ralph Reed, a Republican operative and former head of the Christian Coalition who is running for lieutenant governor of Georgia.
Meese said the scandals over influence-peddling in Congress are bipartisan and that the GOP will be able to weather criticism over the Iraq war in this year's elections.
Historian Robert Dallek said both Reagan and John Kennedy "remain inspirational voices" long after their presidencies.
"But when you go through the scandals we have seen, the doubts that have been raised about Bush and the Iraq war, the recriminations [over spying] by the National Security Agency, Reagan and Kennedy become all the more appealing," he added.
Reed said Reagan gave the Christian evangelical movement a boost by embracing its agenda after his nomination in 1980, although Reed conceded that the former president did not push some of the movement's causes actively during his two terms. Even so, evangelicals still hold Reagan in high esteem, said William Martin, a Rice University sociology professor and an author of books on the Christian right.
"He was the first president to say he favored restricting abortion on demand," Reed said. "That was a critical moment."
As Democrats criticize Republicans for fostering a "culture of corruption" in Washington, Reed said if the GOP is able to enact lobbying reforms as promised it can overcome the scandals. He said Democrats failed in the 1990s to make internal reforms when several scandals erupted in the House.
Reed has been caught up in the corruption scandal because of his business dealings with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. His public relations and lobbying companies received at least $4.2 million through Abramoff's firm to mobilize voters against Indian casino gambling.
But Reed said he did nothing wrong. "I was assured by the law firm at the onset that funds contributed to my effort would not derive from gambling activity," he said, adding that "if I had known what I know now, I would not have done that work."
Scandals such as Iran-contra also hounded the Reagan administration. The large deficits that he ran up also bring criticism. But 25 years later, his philosophy still drives GOP politics even as a major test looms for Republicans in 2006 elections.
Nostalgia for Reagan remains high in the GOP. Anne Davis Burns, a public relations official for a trade association, helped with the inaugural ticket operation on Jan. 20, 1981, and had a front-row seat for the swearing-in. She remembers clearly when Reagan appeared on stage.
"He was kind of larger than life," she said. And to many Republicans, he still is.
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Still an inspiration
Voices of ideological disciples of the Reagan Revolution:
-- Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, ran Youth for Reagan in Virginia in the 1976 primaries. He called Reagan "my modern-day philosophical hero," adding, "Reagan is the man who inspired me to enter into politics while I was a law student at the University of Virginia."
-- Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a conservative and deficit hawk: "While Reagan was deeply committed to traditional values and a strong defense, to understand him was to realize he was a man committed to limited government. This meant things like local control of schools and reforming our government, and not creating new entitlements. He's the reason I became a Republican."
-- Ralph Reed, Christian Coalition founder and now a GOP candidate in Georgia, recalled how Reagan won over evangelical Christians in 1980. "Reagan said, `I know you can't endorse me, but I want you to know I endorse you.' That formal embrace by the Republican Party and by its presidential nominee, who went on to become the president, gave an imprimatur and a seal of approval."
-- Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) spent the last six years of Reagan's presidency in the Air Force. "My first impression of Ronald Reagan was, I really liked this guy. . . . I thought he was a cool dude, I thought he had a great sense of humor, he made conservatism not only acceptable but cool, and he brought a dignity but a personal touch to office that it needed."
-- William Neikirk and Tribune news services