If someone wanted to, they could make an amusing video montage of the 2012 Republican presidential aspirants using the words “Ronald Reagan” incessantly in each of their thirty billion debates. Once Reagan left office, the GOP decided to lionize him. They named a Washington DC airport after him. Grover Norquist launched a project to “name at least one notable public landmark in each U.S. state and all 3067 counties after the 40th president.” He’s made real progress in that regard, too. There’s a portion of Interstate 65 in Alabama that has been named the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, and there is the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, for example. All across the country, theaters, roads, and courthouses bear the name of The Gipper.

What’s fascinating about this is that the 40th president has a much more moderate record, even on taxation, than his Republican contemporaries. But they don’t judge him on his record. They see him as the vanguard of a revolution. His accomplishments were constrained by the fact that he spent eight years dealing with a Democratic House of Representatives and two years dealing with a Democratic Senate.

It wasn’t until the Gingrich Revolution in 1994, long after Reagan had slipped into senility, that the conservatives gained the chance to really exercise “Reaganism.” And the revolutionaries were constrained by the presidency of Bill Clinton, who they soon impeached.

I think the fundamental disconnect between how conservatives view Ronald Reagan and how every one else views him, is that conservatives don’t really care what he actually did, but only what (they think) he stood for.

So, for example, it doesn’t matter that the budget deficit exploded under Reagan or that he continuously raised the debt ceiling. It doesn’t matter that he repeatedly raised taxes. It doesn’t matter he talked about nuclear disarmament. Those things resulted from the necessity of dealing with a Democratic Congress. Either that, or they are overshadowed by the former president’s strong Cold War rhetoric.

We tend to see this is as simple projection. Conservatives impose their own beliefs on a president who may not have shared them, at least not to the same degree. But there is an alternate reality somewhere in which Reagan would have had the congressional support to pursue his “real” agenda. You can say the same thing about President Obama. With Obama, he did have two years where he was able to (mostly) pursue his agenda, albeit only a few months in which he could impose his will. Yet, his agenda never contemplated that he would take office in the midst of the worst economic crisis in more than a half century. Had he taken the oath of office in normal economic times, his first two years would have been devoted to a lot of different things.

I think it’s a mistake to look at the record of presidents and think that they did exactly what they wanted to do. In a sense, the Republicans have a perverse view of Reagan that bears little relation to his actual performance in office. But, in another sense, they’re correct to see him as far more radical than his record. He truly was the vanguard for these lunatics.

For historians, that should not count in his favor.

In Obama’s case, the reverse might be true. And liberals may come to view him less by what he actually accomplished (especially in his second term) than by his significance as the man who ushered in the end of the era of Reagan.

On the other hand, most liberals that I know are more likely to spend their golden years nitpicking Obama’s presidency than working to name their streets and schools after him.

That’s just how we roll.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com