Getting Right with Reagan

The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016

Marcus M. Witcher

Republicans today often ask, “What would Reagan do?” The short answer: probably not what they think. Hero of modern-day conservatives, Ronald Reagan was not even conservative enough for some of his most ardent supporters in his own time—and today his practical, often bipartisan approach to politics and policy would likely be deemed apostasy. To try to get a clearer picture of what the real Reagan legacy is, in this book Marcus M. Witcher details conservatives’ frequently tense relationship with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and explores how they created the latter-day Reagan myth.

Witcher reminds us that during Reagan’s time in office, conservative critics complained that he had failed to bring about the promised Reagan Revolution—and in 1988 many Republican hopefuls ran well to the right of his policies. Notable among the dissonant acts of his administration: Reagan raised taxes when necessary, passed comprehensive immigration reform, signed a bill that saved Social Security, and worked with adversaries at home and abroad to govern effectively. Even his signature accomplishment—invoked by “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”—was highly unpopular with the Conservative Caucus, as evidenced in their newspaper ads comparing the president to Neville Chamberlain: “Appeasement is as Unwise in 1988 as in 1938.”

“The legend is that Ronald Reagan unified the GOP and led it to a long string of successes. This outstanding book tells the true story, which is far more complex and fascinating. With depth, balance, and subtlety, Witcher explains how Reagan went from being the leader of a fractious party to a symbol of its aspirations. Getting Right with Reaganmakes a major contribution to the study of American political history, offering rich insights into the history and political uses of the Reagan myth.”

—John J. Pitney, Jr., Roy P. Crocker Professor of Politics, Claremont McKenna College

“Marcus Witcher has written a bold and provocative book. Not everyone will be persuaded by his revisionist portrayal of President Reagan as a ‘pragmatist,’ or by Witcher’s contention that conservative ‘purists’ since the 1980s have constructed an idealized and mythical Reagan who owed his success to an unbending devotion to conservative principles. But readers of this volume will gain a deeper appreciation of Reagan’s immense and continuing impact on the mental landscape of the American Right.”

—George H. Nash, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945

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Reagan’s presidential library and museum positioned him above partisan politics, emphasizing his administration’s role in bringing about economic recovery and negotiating an end to the Cold War. How this legacy, as Reagan himself envisioned it, became the more grandiose version fashioned by Republicans after the 1980s tells us much about the late twentieth-century transformation of the GOP—and, as Witcher’s work so deftly shows, the conservative movement as we know it now.

About the Author

Marcus M. Witcher is a scholar-in-residence in both the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the coeditor of Public Choice Analyses of American Economic History, Volumes 1–3.