Is Ronald Reagan's legacy overblown?

As Americans mark the 100th anniversary of the late president's birth, a new debate erupts over whether he deserves his near-idol status

Ronald Reagan may be seven years dead, but his influence weighs heavily over the Republican Party.
(Image credit: Corbis)

The late Ronald Reagan would have turned 100 on Sunday, and admirers are marking the occasion with everything from concerts and a Rose Parade float to a graveside wreath-laying and commemorative jelly beans. The centennial celebration — one of the most extensive ever to honor a former president — is intended to mark the enduring political imprint of the plain-spoken, optimistic, two-term Republican. But Reagan's detractors say his importance has been overblown. Does the former president deserve his status as an American icon? (Watch a video tribute to Reagan)

No, Reagan is revered due to good PR, not his record: The Republican "myth" is that Americans "adored Reagan," says Steve Benen at Washington Monthly. At this point in his presidency, Reagan was less popular than Obama is now, and by the time his second term was up, his poll numbers didn't match the outgoing Bill Clinton's. GOP activists, with their "creepy Reagan Legacy Project," have just tricked people into ignoring the details of his presidency — such as his tax increases — and buying into the myth of "Ronaldus Magnus."

"The benefits of highly motivated publicists"

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Liberals are the revisionists here: Except for their grudging acknowledgement of his role in the Cold War, says Steven F. Hayward in National Review, liberals simply refuse to give Ronald Reagan his due. The left can't attack his accomplishments head on, so they resort to a "subtle revisionism," claiming he was a tax-raising phony. Sorry, guys, Ronald Reagan restored the conservative commitment to limited government and paved the way for GOP landslides. And if Republicans remain true to his principles, there will be more of those to come.

"Reagan reclaimed"

The real Reagan was more complicated than either side admits: Reagan entered office in 1981 vowing to cut spending and taxes, says Brian Montopoli at CBS News, and he quickly followed through by "passing a major reduction in marginal tax rates." But he also presided over a debt that skyrocketed from $700 billion to $3 trillion, and later accepted tax hikes that eroded, but did not eliminate, his original cuts. So Reagan "held firm beliefs but was also willing to work with his ideological opponents." Reality is just "the sort of thing that doesn't much lend itself to mythmaking."

"Ronald Reagan myth doesn't square with reality"

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.