When the Right Hated Reagan
Ted Cruz wants you know that he is neither John McCain nor Rand Paul when it comes to foreign policy. He represents what he describes as a “third pole”: Ronald Reagan.
Republicans comparing themselves to Reagan is nothing new, of course. “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want me to be,” Bob Dole said poignantly during the 1996 campaign.
Cruz, however, is wrapping himself in the mantle of Reagan on foreign policy. He deserves kudos for acknowledging that Reagan’s foreign policy wouldn’t be identical to that of an uber-hawk like McCain, a concession most proponents of a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy don’t often make. To them, neoconservatism and Reaganism are one and the same.
Nevertheless, Cruz has recently been more interested in contrasting himself with Paul, a fellow Tea Party leader and possible competitor for the conservative vote in the 2016 Republican primaries. Paul for his part seems to recognize that Cruz was “latching on to Reagan’s legacy” in order to portray the senator from Kentucky as soft on foreign policy.
It’s often forgotten that many conservatives once thought Reagan was too soft on foreign policy while in office. Longtime Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz accused Reagan of “appeasement” for withdrawing from Lebanon and not taking a hard enough line against the imposition of martial law in Poland.
“In his first term,” Podhoretz wrote, “Mr. Reagan proved unwilling to take the political risks and expend the political energy that a real break with the underlying assumption of détente would have entailed… overwhelmed by the political present, and perhaps lured by seductive fantasies of what historians in the future might have to say about him as a peacemaker, Mr. Reagan seems ready to embrace the course of détente as wholeheartedly as his own.”
As early as 1982, Podhoretz published in the New York Times “The Neo-Conservative Anguish Over Reagan’s Foreign Policy.” Four years later, he would accuse Reagan of having “shamed himself and the country” with his “craven eagerness” to give away America’s nuclear advantage.
But it wasn’t just the neoconservatives. The Chicago Tribune described Pat Buchanan, who would soon becoming a leading antiwar paleoconservative, as engaging “in a fight for Reagan’s soul” against White House chief of staff Howard Baker on foreign policy, among other issues. In a long Newsweek piece titled “A Conservative Makes A Final Plea,” Buchanan urged Reagan to shun arms control agreements as a liberal “object of veneration” and “golden calf,” avoiding compromise with the left at home and the Soviets abroad during his final years in office.
Within five years, Buchanan would tell the Republican National Convention, “Ronald Reagan won the Cold War.”
Howard Phillips, a fellow paleoconservative who would run for the president three times as a third-party candidate on a noninterventionist foreign-policy platform, described Reagan as “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Though he would later excoriate neoconservatives, he sang from the same song sheet when criticizing Reagan’s diplomacy.
George Will, who would later describe the neoconservatives as “the most radical people in this town” and pen back-to-back columns calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Reagan folded “like a punctured balloon” in a summit with the Soviets. "Four years ago, many people considered Reagan a keeper of the Cold War flame," he wrote in 1988. "Time flies. For conservatives, Ronald Reagan's foreign policy has produced much surprise, but little delight."
During the 2012 Republican primaries, Newt Gingrich got into trouble for repeatedly channeling neoconservative criticisms of Reagan as a bomb-throwing House backbencher in the 1980s. Gingrich’s lament of Reagan’s “weak policies” led him to conclude: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.”
Gingrich described Reagan’s 1985 meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” The future House speaker concluded a few years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.”
Many conservatives today reduce Reagan to comments like “evil empire,” “tear down this wall,” or “we win they, lose,” as well as policies like the defense buildup, Star Wars and Pershing missiles. While all of those things, in addition to Reagan’s moral clarity about communism, were important, they are not the whole story—as contemporary criticism of Reagan makes clear at the time.
When it comes to mixing power and prudence, let us hope Ted Cruz is another Ronald Reagan. But he should remember whom some on the right once thought was soft.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?