The Times Finds New Way to Insult Ronald Reagan

John Harwood finds a new way to insult Ronald Reagan: The former heartless budget-cutter was actually guilty of "runaway spending."

In John Harwood's Sunday Week in Review piece, "Rethinking The Reagan Mystique," he claimed Republicans are rejecting Ronald Reagan as a political inspiration and urging their party to look forward, but probably overstated the case. However, Harwood does come up with a novel insult of Reagan: a runaway spender!

For a liberal Democrat,President Obamahas offered generous praise for the most celebrated of his recent Republican predecessors.

Mr. Obama has creditedRonald Reaganwith having "changed the trajectory of America" in waysBill Clintondidn't. "President Reagan helped as much as any president to restore a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics," Mr. Obama said earlier this month while signing the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act in the presence ofNancy Reagan.

It's not surprising that Mr. Obama has embraced Mr. Reagan's achievement since it seems akin to his own aspirations and might also ingratiate him with conservatives. What is surprising is the increasingly ambiguous position Mr. Reagan holds on the right.

Some Republicans have begun reassessing whether Mr. Reagan today affords the best example as they seek a path back to power. The economic crisis, which Mr. Obama last fall declared a "final verdict" on the anti-government philosophy thatGeorge W. Bushand Mr. Reagan shared, has made Reaganism less politically marketable than at any time in a generation.

"I don't use him publicly as a reference point," said Gov. Mitch Danielsof Indiana, a Republican who lately has emerged as a potential national party leader. Mr. Daniels instead has urged fellow Republicans to "let go" of Mr. Reagan as a contemporary symbol.

As Mr. Reagan's White House political director, Mr. Daniels brings credibility to the discussion. A year ago, when he first proposed that Republicans turn the page he drew sharp criticism fromRush Limbaugh, among others. Now, Mr. Daniels observes, "I think it's spreading."

That's not to say Republicans disavow Mr. Reagan's achievements, which include cutting tax rates, presiding over the successful conclusion of the cold war and, as Mr. Obama noted, boosting morale after a period of national self-doubt. Indeed a recent video made by a conservative group includesNewt Gingrichinvoking Mr. Reagan in the terms of old: "His rendezvous with destiny is a reminder that we all have a similar rendezvous," Mr. Gingrich said, reflecting the admiration for Mr. Reagan that is still in force among the party's conservative base.

After years of liberal media caricatures of Reaganas a heartless budget cutter, Harwood suggested Reagan and George W. Bush were to blame for..."runaway spending."

Perhaps most important, the principal early line of attack Republicans have offered against Mr. Obama, that he is a profligate spender who will run up massive deficits, is also the area where the Reagan Revolution looks most vulnerable today, as critics on the right have pointed out. "The federal payroll was larger in 1989 than it had been in 1981," Richard Gamble wrote last month in American Conservative magazine. "Reagan's tax cuts, whatever their merits as short-term fiscal policy, left large and growing budget deficits when combined with increased spending, and added to the national debt."

To be sure, Mr. Reagan's failure to curb the cost of government reflected the enduring difficulty all presidents face in balancing the government services Americans want with the taxes they're willing to pay. But today it seems, increasingly, that it was Mr. Reagan and his admirer, George W. Bush, who contributed most to the problem of runaway spending, at least among recent presidents.