Reagan: A president's second act

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A new statue of Ronald Reagan in London confirms the reverence with which this once-mocked leader is held. And an heir is expected from the next generation of Republican candidates, says Rupert Cornwell

Even Westminster City Council could not resist the legend of Ronald Reagan.

On 4 July, Independence Day, a bronze statue of the 40th President of the United States will be unveiled in Grosvenor Square – a distinction that normally must wait until the historical figure in question has been dead at least 10 years. But in Britain it seems, just as in America, that Reagan stands apart.

He died in 2004 at the age of 93 at his home in Bel Air, just west of Hollywood where he first made his name, lost in the fog of Alzheimer's disease. In spirit, however, it is as if he had never gone – as today's Republican search for a challenger to Barack Obama only underlines. The primary campaign that formally kicks off early next year is not just to produce a nominee, but to designate the true heir of Ronald Reagan.

Such considerations, one must assume, did not colour the Westminster Council's decision to waive its rule so that, only seven years after Reagan was laid to rest, a monument could be erected in London to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois, on 6 February 1911.

Only four other US presidents have been accorded such an honour. A statue of George Washington, victor of the revolutionary war and the father of his country, stands outside the National Gallery (proof of sorts that the British, whatever their faults, are sporting losers).

Abraham Lincoln, victor of the Civil War and the president who abolished slavery, is to be found opposite the Houses of Parliament, while Reagan will now join Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in the square in front of the US Embassy – and whatever one's politics, it's hard to quibble with the site.

If the Anglo-American relationship has a physical ground zero, Grosvenor Square is it. The house that was home to John Adams, the first US ambassador to the Court of St James's and who succeeded Washington as president, still stands at the corner of Brook Street and Duke Street, and the American embassy has been in, or close to, the square ever since.

During the Second World War, the Americans virtually took over the neighbourhood, turning Grosvenor Square into the nerve centre of America's war operations in Britain and the D-Day planning (for which it earned the nickname of "Eisenhower Platz"). The embassy itself is set to move to the humbler address of Nine Elms, Battersea, by 2017 or so, but the presidential statues will remain in situ.

And you can make a respectable case for Reagan's induction into this trans-Atlantic hall of fame. Yes, he wobbled briefly during the Falklands crisis, and in 1983 had the cheek to invade the sovereign Commonwealth country of Grenada; but by and large he was a staunch friend of Britain, and got on famously with Margaret Thatcher – who, health permitting, will attend the 4 July ceremony.

London was where in 1982 he made the first of several speeches denouncing the Soviet Union, declaring in an address to Parliament that Communism would end up "on the ash heap of history". Yet Reagan's readiness to engage with Mikhail Gorbachev – summed up by his watchwords of "trust but verify" – hastened the end of the Cold War.

Yes, he was immortally depicted on the TV programme Spitting Image as a bumbling trigger-happy fool itching to blast the world into smithereens. In reality, no American president has tried so hard to get rid of nuclear weapons; at the Reykjavik summit of October 1986, he came within touching distance of a deal with Gorbachev to do so. But that, of course, is not why Republicans today revere him as a demi-god.

For his opponents, the Reagan era saw cruel capitalism ran amok, as Gordon Gekko ruled the universe and when the interests of unions and the little man were trampled into the dust. But in Republican folklore, Reagan presided over America's last golden age; for his party, the methods he used (or is held to have used) are the 10 commandments; only by staying faithful to them can the US hope to overcome the lingering recession, a mountain of indebtedness, and its deepening crisis of self-belief.

The truth, of course, is not so simple. Reagan, it is held by believers, spent his entire period in office from 1981 to 1989 cutting taxes, slashing government, uprooting bureaucratic regulations and never, ever, ever, compromising on those principles with the latter-day socialists going under the name of Democrats. Listen to Republicans, and the Reagan years were an unbroken spell of rapid growth, surging prosperity and jobs for all.

The inconvenient reality is that the "stagflation" Reagan inherited from Jimmy Carter was ultimately broken not by his enlightened economic policies, but by savagely high interest rates imposed by the Federal Reserve, whose chairman, Paul Volcker, had been appointed by Reagan's despised predecessor.

Government wasn't the solution, government was the problem, Reagan loved to say. But Reagan did raise taxes, and in some areas left government even larger than when he found it. The "morning in America" optimist also struck deals with his political opponents, who controlled one or both houses of Congress throughout his two terms. When ideology collided with the demands of pragmatism, Reagan would bow to the latter; his genius was in having his followers continue to believe otherwise. Not for nothing was he called "The Great Communicator".

So the myth was established. Reagan's preferred image was as a man of the West, and in those parts – to quote the celebrated line from that greatest of Westerns, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance – the rule is: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Republicans have been printing the Reagan legend ever since.

Deviation from Reagan's principles, above all his repudiation of his "Read my lips, no new taxes", was held to be the reason why the great man's successor George H W Bush was defeated in 1992 by the upstart Bill Clinton.

When the younger Bush sought to regain the White House and restore family honour in 2000, he spoke constantly of Reagan, virtually never of his father. Having inherited a government surplus, George W Bush could do the proper thing and cut taxes. But the financial collapse and near-death economic experience of 2008/2009 have battered his reputation almost beyond repair, even among Republicans.

These days "W" is seen as a profligate expander of government, not just in his pursuit of costly wars paid for by borrowing, but for his domestic stewardship as well, for devoting new money to federal education and health programmes, instead of cutting outlays and turning such matters over to the individual states.

Election 2012 may thus be seen as a quest by true believers for a third time lucky; that after the disappointment of the two Bushes, Republicans will finally find their Reagan redux, who will not backslide on the great man's principles and therefore lead the party back to power and save the country. Such at least is the theory. In fact, if the real Reagan were to have a second coming, he certainly would be astonished and perhaps dismayed by what he found.

Every Republican aspirant to the White House automatically professes his fealty to Reagan. But these days the radical right-wing Tea Party movement is making all the running. And by embracing the Reagan legend in its purest possible form, the Tea Partiers have pushed the entire Republican party to the right.

Nothing was more instructive than the second candidates debate on 13 June in the vital first primary state of New Hampshire. Every single contender intoned the articles of modern conservative faith: massive cuts in both spending and taxes, across-the-board deregulation, a crackdown on illegal immigrants, and the return of every possible power to the separate states.

Medicare, the federal health programme for the elderly, would be effectively privatised, and Medicaid, the programme for the poor, would be gutted. As for "Obama-care" – the first, albeit imperfect, measure to provide something approaching universal health care for Americans – it would be consigned to history's ash heap on day one of the new Republican era. Of the "compassionate conservativism" of the kind proclaimed by George W Bush, not a word was heard.

And maybe the party's candidates are starting to move beyond even Reagan. Interestingly, his actual name was invoked only twice during the two-hour debate: first by Newt Gingrich, the firebrand former Speaker but amazingly a relative moderate in the 2012 field, who mentioned with approval the "Reagan Recovery" of the mid-1980s; and then, even more revealingly, by Tim Pawlenty.

You might think that Pawlenty's background, as a two-term governor of the somewhat earnest, usually Democratic-leaning state of Minnesota, would make him a centrist in Republican terms – and indeed he claimed his family were "Reagan Democrats", the socially conservative, mainly blue-collar workers who switched parties in dismay at the leftward lurch of the Democrats in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Now, however, Pawlenty said, "they listen to Rush Limbaugh", the bombastic right-wing talk show host and arguably the most influential living Republican in the land, whom no party candidate or legislator dare offend. Pawlenty promises to tell uncomfortable truths. But his economic nostrums of colossal tax cuts and a bonfire of regulation have even many conservative economists blinking in disbelief.

Ah but fear not, some American political experts will say at this point. These are only the primaries, when everyone has to pander to the conservative activists who dominate voting. As soon as the general election campaign begins, whoever is the nominee will tack hard back to the centre.

But this year you can't be sure. The party orthodoxy is that America's accumulating problems of the past 20 years reflect not too much conservatism, but too little. Elections are won in the centre, Republicans acknowledge, but they argue that the centre has now shifted to the right, that the country is moving in their direction. Meanwhile, so far have Republicans moved already that, as the debate suggested, explicit mention of Reagan has become a code word for moderation.

This week, Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah – like Reagan a self-proclaimed son of the West but who also served as Obama's ambassador to China – pointedly chose to formally announce his candidacy from the spot, close to the Statue of Liberty, where almost 31 years ago Reagan kicked off his general election campaign.

Huntsman drew the obvious parallel between now and then, and the economic crisis that was sapping the US in the autumn of 1980. "He [Reagan] assured us we could make America great again and through his leadership we did. Today I stand in his shadow, as well as in the shadow of this magnificent monument."

The Statue of Liberty is not just an emblem of American values, but also of America's openness to the world, and there too Huntsman was subtly setting himself apart from his rivals. For in foreign policy too, Republicans have come full circle.

Bold and assertive neo-conservatism is out; at the debate almost no-one had a kind word to say about the continuing large US presence in Afghanistan, let alone the campaign against Libya. Let an ungrateful world sort out its problems by itself, was the underlying message. Again, Huntsman struck a different note. America should not repeat the mistakes of the past – but it should not withdraw from the world either.

Probably he won't win. The conventional wisdom is that he's too moderate to triumph in the primaries, although he is perhaps the Republican the White House would least like to meet in November 2012. And if any of the party's current crop has a chance of ever making it all the way to a statue in Grosvenor Square, it's surely Jon Huntsman.

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