While it may have seemed innocuous, John McCain's answer to last night's debate question, "Would Ronald Reagan endorse you?" should be enough to unnerve (though perhaps not surprise) any Cold War historian not firmly committed to Reagan Victory School-hackery.
When asked the same question, Romney took the chance to preen about immigration and Mike Huckabee talked about sunny optimism. McCain, however, harped on two important but relatively obscure episodes in the annals of U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiation:
"Ronald Reagan came with an unshakable set of principles, and there were many times, like when he had to deploy the Pershing [missile] and cruise missiles to Europe and there were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against it, he stood with it."
"Ronald Reagan had a deal in Reykjavik that everybody wanted him to take, but he stuck with his principles."
The only reason for McCain to mention these events is if he's as obsessed with imitating Reagan on foreign policy issues as Ron Paul--who said Reagan wanted to return to the gold standard--is obsessed with making William Jennings Bryan spin in his grave.
Unfortunately, the precedent McCain wants to imitate is, in many ways, just as nutty:
During the Pershing nuclear missile fiasco, Reagan "stuck with his principles" by allowing his conservative advisors--notably Richard Perle--to block any negotiations that would "legitimize" the Soviet regime until 1983. (An approach later replicated by conservatives in the Bush administration.) As a result, the world experienced the second-most (if not the most) dangerous moment of the Cold War. By 1981, 76 percent of Americans thought a nuclear war would start within a few years. Reagan decided that he had almost caused the apocalypse and, horrified, he reversed course and negotiated away the Pershing II missiles.
At Reykjavik, both Reagan and Gorbachev reached "a deal that everybody wanted him to take"--they agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons worldwide. The only sticking point was that Reagan wouldn't drop his dream of deploying SDI--a theoretically impenetrable space-laser shield meant to protect the American people from nuclear warheads "like a roof protects a family from rain." Reagan wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons, but he thought building SDI and sharing it with the Soviets was the only way to truly prevent the possibility of nuclear war. If you haven't noticed, this line of reasoning is completely insane.
Thus, in McCain's telling, "sticking to principle" means reviving the spirit of what were--arguably--the two worst, most cockeyed decisions of Reagan's presidency. Now, McCain wants that spirit to guide our actions in Iraq and our dealings with North Korea and Iran. Talk about historical amnesia at its worst.
P.S. For more on how movement conservatives think about foreign policy--why they hate treaties; why they're obsessed with Good and Evil; why they invaded Iraq; and what it all has to do with the Cold War--check out Peter Scoblic's upcoming book U.S. vs. Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security.