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Reagan Worship Vs. Kennedy Worship

MSNBC's First Read comments:

Never mind the silly debate over whether Reagan should be used as an icon or not. The issue of Reagan reminds us of the Kennedy-obsession Democrats had for decades. One could argue it took the Democrats nearly 30 years to kick the Kennedy habit (maybe longer). So, this Reagan issue may take the Republicans another 10 years to get over.

It's not a good comparison. The Democratic obsession with the Kennedys is/was primarily stylistic. It recurs whenever a young, stylish presidential candidate makes people feel inspired. It is not, and really never has been, common for Democrats to argue that a certain course of action is wise simply because a Kennedy once advocated it. But Republicans have been doing so with regard to Reagan for twenty years now. I wrote an article about this phenomenon in 2000. An excerpt:

On the pages of today's conservative press, Reagan remains not only a frequent presence but an omniscient figure. One conservative columnist urges Republicans to "reteach the lessons of Ronald Reagan to a new generation." Another writes that "it is optimistic visionaries who succeed, pessimists who fail. Mr. Reagan taught us that." When conservatives fear they are on the brink of failure, it is Reagan whom they summon to stiffen their ideological resolve. "You could conclude that [Steve] Forbes's withdrawal proves that the basic idea of a coalition of social conservatives and economic conservatives, oriented toward liberty, is dead," the National Review editorialized this year, "But that's not the lesson Ronald Reagan drew." To associate an idea with Reagan is axiomatically to establish its truth.

The Reagan presidency lives on in conservative mythology as a bygone utopia peopled by titans against whom the mortals of today must be measured. As conservative writer David Frum observed in his 1994 lament, Dead Right, "Post-Bush conservatives look back on the accomplishments of the early Reagan years the way seventh-century Romans must have looked at their aqueducts: to think that we once built all this!" When conservatives debate the Reagan legacy, it is not to dispute its merits but to lay competing claims to its mantle. Witness this year's intraconservative debate over expanding trade with China. Proponents of permanent normal trading relations pointed to Reagan's support for free trade; opponents invoked his anti-communism. Had someone dug up a forgotten diary entry laying out Reagan's position for such a future contingency, it might have settled the argument then and there. The premise underlying such debates was explicated by Reagan hagiographer Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote that "the right simply needs to approach public policy questions by asking: What would Reagan have done?"

Nothing like this can be found in the Democrats' Kennedy veneration.

--Jonathan Chait