The benefits of highly-motivated publicists

THE BENEFITS OF HIGHLY-MOTIVATED PUBLICISTS…. Given the lavish celebrations planned in honor of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, Paul Waldman reminds that “myths abound” when it comes to the 40th president. In particular, Paul noted Reagan’s poll numbers.

Then there’s the myth that Reagan was stunningly popular, when in fact his approval ratings were middling — his average approval of 52.8 percent puts him ahead of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, but behind Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon Johnson, among others.

Kevin Drum wasn’t buying it.

Still, when Paul Waldman suggests that Reagan’s popularity is a myth too, I think he takes a step too far. Reagan is pretty popular! With the exception of our weird ongoing love affair with John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton are routinely chosen in polls as the most popular postwar presidents. Likewise, Reagan and Clinton were basically tied for the highest approval rating when they left office.

Oddly enough, both cited the exact same Gallup data to draw different conclusions.

Though they disagree, I find myself agreeing with both Paul and Kevin. The myth among Republicans is that Americans simply adored Reagan. That’s really not the case — at this point in his presidency, Reagan was less popular than Obama is now, and by the time his second term was up, Reagan enjoyed fairly broad support, but not as high as Clinton’s, and nothing close to the perceptions of his adoring fans.

Let’s put it this way — when Clinton ran against the Reagan legacy in 1992, no one found that odd, and it certainly didn’t stand in the way of a major Democratic victory.

That said, Kevin’s right about Reagan’s current standing. Indeed, he’s far more popular now than he was when he was actually president.

And that, to me, is actually the more interesting area of exploration. Reagan is unique in modern political history, because he’s the only former chief executive to have an aggressive, well-financed, highly-motivated public-relations campaign work on his reputation after leaving office. Generally, presidents are either remembered fondly or they’re not. Their public stature either improves or doesn’t.

With Reagan, Republicans weren’t willing to take any chances — Americans might not remember Reagan fondly, so GOP activists sought to make sure we remembered him the “right” way. It gave birth to the creepy Reagan Legacy Project, pressuring officials nationwide to name buildings, highways, schools, etc. after the former president. It’s gotten to the point that the Republican National Committee has quite literally referred to him as Ronaldus Magnus.

It’s silly to argue that Reagan’s stature has gone down over the years; it clearly hasn’t. But I’d argue his reputation has improved because Republicans have manufactured a p.r. campaign that has worked wonders. A lot of Reagan’s fans claim to love the former president for reasons that bear no resemblance to the man’s record, and those same fans seemed utterly shocked when confronted with details of his presidency — such as his tax increases — that they prefer to pretend didn’t happen.

And why did the party bother? Because, oddly enough, Republicans have very few heroes to choose from. Think about it — over the last 146 years, exactly how many GOP presidents do Republican activists actually like? There’s Reagan, and there’s no one else.

Dems have a more diversified list, ranging from Jefferson to Jackson, Roosevelt to Truman, JFK to Clinton, and maybe someday, Obama.

Reagan, conversely, gets all the love, because his party isn’t proud of anyone else except Lincoln. So, sure, he’s popular now, but let’s not overlook the benefits of highly-motivated publicists.