More than a decade after his death, Ronald Reagan’s shadow continues to loom over the Republican Party. In the most recent debate between GOP presidential candidates, Reagan was discussed in detail 23 times. While there is certainly no denying that Reagan was a popular president — owed in no small part to his charming, Hollywood-honed persona — in the decades since he left office, he has achieved the status of a conservative icon. After all, Reagan once declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” To a certain generation of conservatives, the mere mention of his name stirs up a wave of nostalgia, harkening back to a supposedly simpler, more innocent time — a time of economic and diplomatic prosperity, when good, old-fashioned conservative values reigned supreme.
When Reagan took office in 1981, America was coming off a decade of political tumult. Americans wanted a leader whom they could trust, and they felt Reagan, with his warm voice and steadfast stoicism, was just the man for the job. Most conservatives credit Reagan with fostering economic growth and ending the Cold War. While his achievements cannot be denied, they also must not be overly exalted. There were many issues that the Reagan administration failed to deal with properly. In hindsight, perhaps the most glaringly callous error of the Reagan administration was its refusal to help with, or even acknowledge, the AIDS crisis during its early years. Even as the death toll skyrocketed and AIDS became a full-scale epidemic, Reagan remained silent, likely because of its association with homosexuality. In fact, it wasn’t until 1987, when over 20,000 had died from AIDS in the United States, that Reagan gave his first speech addressing the disease.
The Reagan presidency was also riddled with issues and scandals of its own, even if the general populace was mostly unaware at the time. Some were more high profile, such as the Iran-Contra affair, which involved the president violating an embargo and shipping arms to Iran in exchange for American hostages.
Viewing Reagan as the utmost pillar of conservatism simply is misguided. Like all other presidents, Reagan made mistakes and was flawed, even with his movie-star charisma. Not only is it mostly incorrect for current GOP contenders to compare themselves to Reagan, it is also a cheap, exploitative tactic. Reagan is not here to comment on the current political climate, so to put words in his mouth is unreasonable. For Republicans, the focus should be on the future — not on a romanticized version of the past.
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