Ethics & Public Policy Center

Let Reagan Be Reagan

Published in Commentary Magazine on January 21, 2014



In an April 21, 1986 lecture at New York University (found in the collection Came the Revolution), Daniel Patrick Moynihan has some words to say about David Stockman. Moynihan quotes Stockman as saying (in his memoir), “To me, [Irving] Kristol was a secular incarnation of the Lord Himself.”

Senator Moynihan had great regard for Kristol, referring to him in the speech as “perhaps the preeminent conservative intellectual of our age.” Moynihan then went on to make this observation about Ronald Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget:

But then a younger generation comes along which elevates thought into belief. Not only are the ideas of their mentors true, they are the Only Truth. Given by the Lord Himself. What began as skepticism concerning received doctrine transmutes into fierce conviction.

Elsewhere Moynihan describes Stockman as “an absorbing figure to a student of ideology not least because of his near addiction. He goes on as if the Reaganites had appointed him a kind of party theorist responsible for doctrinal conformity.”

And then there’s this:

[Stockman] describes his migration from the student Left — SDS and suchlike — to the Republican Right in terms which are legitimately intellectual but also, at times, clearly at that point where a measured judgment as to the preponderance of evidence crosses over into the zone of radical conviction. He cites authors of meticulous clarity and caution with that element of fervor we associate with zealotry and even intolerance.

I cite these passages from Moynihan because the Stockman Temptation–to take it upon oneself to enforce rigid ideology, to attack those who are not sufficiently pure and fervid, and to remove conservatism from any real-world context–is arguably more widespread today than it was thirty years ago.

We’re seeing some self-described Reaganites who are far more ideological and interested in doctrinal conformity than Reagan ever was. Making matters worse, they invoke the name of Reagan and claim they are his heirs. In fact they seem to know very little about the real Reagan–his temperament and graceful bearing, his governing style, and some of the basic facts of his years in office (including his bipartisan deals, his willingness to make accommodations with key elements of the Great Society and the New Deal, and his ability to pick his battles wisely and with prudence).

They revere not the real Reagan but an imaginary one–the one who validates their own zeal, their quest for doctrinal purity, and their own resentments. To invoke a line we often heard from conservatives during the Reagan years: Let Reagan be Reagan.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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