A political hero for our times?: The return of Ronald Reagan

As US president, he was widely mocked. Yet today he is being cited as an inspiration by presidential candidates of all political persuasions. Rupert Cornwell on a remarkable rehabilitation

"As I get older Ronald Reagan seems to get smarter." Thus the Republican Mitt Romney, campaigning ahead of his victory in this week's Republican primary in his old home state of Michigan that kept his White House hopes alive. But the words might have been uttered by any of his rivals for the nomination.

Most presidents and presidential candidates pick a hero, explicit or otherwise, among their predecessors. As he struggles late in his second term to rescue his legacy, George Bush takes comfort from Harry Truman, who left office as unloved as Bush is now, but is today regarded as one of America's greater presidents. During his election campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton used his youth and novelty to portray himself as a new Kennedy, lifting shamelessly from the JFK playbook. This time around, however, the man to emulate is Ronald Reagan – and not only for Republicans.

Even Barack Obama, the youthful sensation of the Democratic race, is getting into the act. Ronald Reagan, he told a Nevada newspaper ahead of that state's primary tomorrow, "changed the trajectory of America", and met the country's yearning for "clarity, optimism... and a sense of dynamism". In short everyone is grabbing for a corner of the Reagan mantle – to recapture the stardust that 28 years ago conjured arguably the most significant US election victory of the modern era.

It did not seem that way at first. In the early Eighties, Clark Clifford – the legendary Democratic "wise man" and consigliere to Presidents from Truman to Jimmy Carter – delighted the Georgetown dinner circuit by calling Reagan "an amiable dunce". Abroad, Reagan was portrayed as a dim, trigger-happy, one-time Hollywood actor capable of ordering the incineration of the human race with a throw-away line (provided by a speechwriter, naturally).

Even when he left office in 1989, Reagan was liked but not especially admired. The Iran-Contra affair, involving the illicit channelling by his staff of the proceeds of clandestine arms sales to Iran to fund the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua, suggested he hadn't a clue about what was going on in his government. In retrospect, it is clear that Alzheimer's disease was already starting to take its toll.

But the rehabilitation has been remarkable. Today, Reagan is consistently ranked by historians as a "near-great" president, behind the trinity of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and Abraham Lincoln, but in a more than distinguished second tier that includes such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.

Reagan had many defects, among them a boredom with detail, and an economic heartlessness belied by that unfailingly sunny smile. Fuzzy inspiration was his stock in trade, which "the great communicator" could peddle as no other.

In this respect at least, Obama resembles him, with his riffs on "unity not division" and "hope not fear" and the potential – as Patrick Leahy, the latest Democratic senator to endorse Obama yesterday, put it – to "to re-introduce America to ourselves". No candidate in 2008, in either party, can match the capacity of the man from Chicago to electrify a crowd. And indeed, while Reagan relied on cue cards, Obama wings it.

But Reagan's place in history is secure. First, he got the big thing right. When he entered the White House in January 1981, the Soviet Union contained the seeds of its demise – but precious few believed it at the time. He, however, was convinced that Communism was destined for "the scrapheap of history", and within a few months of his leaving office, the Berlin Wall fell. What is more, the much-mocked nuclear brinksman joined forces with Mikhail Gorbachev to seal the landmark nuclear arms reduction deal of the modern era in 1987.

Second, his victory marked an epochal change for modern America. The election of Reagan 28 years ago was truly "transformational" (to use the vogue word among political scientists who believe that 2008 has the potential to become a third such moment). Even Obama recognises as much. The year 1980 sealed the triumph of the conservative movement which dominated American politics in the second half of the 20th century. It began under Barry Goldwater and may only be ending now, more than 40 years later. Liberals may have loathed "Reaganomics" – lower taxes, a shrinking of government and what they saw as blind faith in the markets. They decried the federal deficit, and the "age of greed" that Reagan's policies ushered in. But the policies worked. Not only did the US rediscover its self-confidence. Living standards improved for almost everyone. Had they not, he would never have managed to expand the Republican Party's appeal so substantially, turning millions of low- and middle-income Americans into a new political breed of "Reagan Democrats". Reagan won back to back landslide election victories, and was so popular that his own vice-president was elected to succeed him, something that otherwise has not happened in the past 100 years. George W Bush's role model was not his own father, but his father's predecessor.

At first glance, too, the circumstances are ideal for his second coming. Superficially at least, parallels between 1980 and 2008 abound. Now as then, the country is in a collective funk. Abroad, the US has been chastened in Iraq, albeit not humbled as it was in Vietnam. But the price in terms of America's tarnished image has been as painful as the humiliation inflicted by the Tehran embassy hostage crisis that ended at the moment of Reagan's inauguration, on 20 January 1981.

Not since then, moreover, has the economy been in such a mess as now. The oil shocks of the 1970s brought double-digit inflation combined with paltry growth – "stagflation". At the beginning of 2008 a similar spectre looms fuelled by a tumbling dollar and the soaring cost of oil.

No wonder Messrs Romney, Giuliani, McCain and Thompson – even Mike Huckabee whose economic populism sets him apart from the rest of the Republican field – vie to present themselves as the new Reagan. A giant collective cri de coeur is to be heard from the candidates. If only we could go back to the past.

Sadly for them, the parallels only extend so far. Most obviously, Reagan unseated an incumbent Democrat. This time there is no incumbent. Instead five Republican contenders are seeking to succeed another Republican, whose presidency is widely seen as a disaster.

Back when Reagan came to power, the miseries of the Seventies were fresh in everyone's mind. Now, as the conservative intellectual and former White House speech writer David Frum puts it, "we've been so successful we've worked ourselves out of a job". Today's electorate (whose median birth year is 1963) takes prosperity for granted. The problem is that the advancement of prosperity has slowed to a crawl at best.

Yes, the very rich have done fantastically well, thanks to the younger Bush. But real income has been virtually stagnant since 2000 for everyone else. Under Reagan, by contrast, a rising tide lifted almost all boats.

Americans, a majority of them, even tell pollsters that they would accept higher taxes in return for better public services. These are Democratic issues, and another reason why 2008 looks a Democratic year, in which not even Ronald Reagan redux could snatch victory from the jaws of seemingly predestined defeat.

What they're saying about him

Barack Obama

"He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it... I think he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship."

Fred Thompson

"Ronald Reagan believed in something. How much we need that today. He showed what can be done if you have the will to push for tough choices and the ability to ask the people to accept them."

Mike Huckabee

"I appreciate his (Fred Thompson's) recent conversion, but some of us were for Ronald Reagan in the early days; our legacy goes back a little further. I stay faithful to the things Ronald Reagan stayed faithful to."

Rudy Giuliani

"If we want to be a party that can run and win in states that Ronald Reagan won... we're going to have to take a really good look at what made up the Reagan coalition. It was a broad outreach, an inclusive one, not one that kept people away."

Mitt Romney

"I take my inspiration from Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. The older I get, the smarter Ronald Reagan gets."

John McCain

"I am proud to have been a member of the Reagan revolution, a foot soldier. We all love Ronald Reagan."

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