Reagan: A Divider, Not a Uniter

Paul Greenberg points out something I’ve noted here before, although in a different context:

Here’s my nomination for the nerviest moment of the second presidential debate Friday evening: It came when John Kerry invoked the name of Ronald Reagan to explain how he would unite and lead the Western alliance.

Say again?

Back in the late, great ’80s, President Reagan had to ram Pershing and cruise missiles down our esteemed European allies’ throats when he was deploying those weapons on the continent. It was part of his plan to pressure the Soviets into drawing back their own SS-20s.

The Communists responded with one of their Peace Offensives, summoning hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets to demonstrate for a Nuclear Freeze. There was a Nuclear Freeze movement in this country, too, and John Kerry supported it when he first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984. But the Reagan administration persisted, and, in the end, the Soviets backed off and took their missiles with them.

As for the massive — and decisive — rebuilding of American defenses during the Reagan Years, John Kerry was against it, proposing to slash the Reagan defense budget by $200 billion over four years. Even Senator Kerry now admits that his opposition to a long list of weapons systems was “ill-advised” and “stupid.” But at the time, he was saying that the “biggest defense buildup since World War II has not given us a better defense,” and arguing that Ronald Reagan “has mortgaged our future in order to pay for a bloated military budget.” That was just a few years before the military buildup he’d decried led to the implosion of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War — and of the nuclear arms race with it. And now John Kerry presents himself as another Ronald Reagan.

Candidates often wrap themselves in the mantle of popular presidents of the opposition party–Republicans have been using John Kennedy to flak tax cuts since at least Reagan’s 1980 campaing and FDR since at least Bush’s 2000 campaign–so the nerviness charge isn’t something I find that important. But Greenberg is exactly right in reminding us that, contrary to the image we now have of Reagan, he was not the sweet, non-divisive figure people continue to evoke. On the contrary, he was much more confrontational and ideological than Bush has ever been. Indeed, he was much more willing to be unilateral and act in the face of opposition from our NATO allies than Bush and many of the charges leveled against our current president–he’s wreckless, a cowboy, hurting America’s reputation in the world, etc.–were made against him in his day.

People gloss over Reagan’s divisiveness because he was ultimately proven right and people rallied around many of his policies post hoc. It remains to be seen whether the same will be true of Bush.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    While Reagan got the most credit for the decision to deploy the GLCM and Pershing IIs, the credit should go to Jimmy Carter or deciding to deploy them after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a former GLCM ranger, I always rembembered that as the turning point in Jimmy Carter’s view of the Soviet threat.

  2. 42nd SSD says:

    A few months ago I was discussing Reagan versus President Bush with a friend, and it became all too clear how quickly people forget.

    One of her tirades was about how “Bush is the scariest president we’ve ever had” with regards to women’s rights, abortion, etc. I pointed out he was relatively liberal on those subjects compared to Reagan; while I’m sure things could be better, based on previous experience they could be a lot worse. “Oh, no. I don’t remember feeling anything like this for Reagan.” Etc.

    I’m sure she wasn’t lying, she has simply forgotten what the Reagan years were like–topped with a healthy dose of the current anti-Bush mania. Admittedly I was living in rural Ohio during the 80s, but as I recall anti-abortion and religious conservatism were key areas in Reagan’s political platform. Bush seems to have more important things to worry about right now, and rightly so.