New book on Reagan teaches the virtues of principled compromises

The Great Communicator was also a terrific compromiser. What made him so terrific was that he knew the difference between compromising one’s deeply held principles (don’t!) and compromising to achieve significant incremental advancement of those principles (yes, do it!).

Those are the key lessons from the latest in a masterful series of books on former President Ronald Reagan by public affairs ace-turned-historian Craig Shirley. In the case of The Search for Reagan, released just a month ago, the subtitle tells the story: The Appealing Intellectual Conservatism of Ronald Reagan. Crucially, what many so-called conservatives today fail to grasp is that a willingness to reach constructive compromise was a key facet of Reagan’s deeply thought “intellectual conservatism.” In sum, constructive compromise is built into, rather than being an abandonment of, the Reaganite principles that conserve the U.S. tradition that Reagan called a “maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order.”

I interrupt here to say this isn’t a formal book review, not an analysis of the merits and demerits of The Search for Reagan as a whole. Fifteen years ago, I made a rule never to review books formally by friends; in this case, not only is Shirley a longtime friend, but I also edited the whole of one of his earlier Reagan books and did several other small editing projects for him. I have obvious biases in Shirley’s favor, so, in fairness to the reader, I confine myself here to his book’s themes and lessons, not its worthiness or readability.

Shirley’s overriding goal here is to show both that Reagan’s conservatism was a deeply and carefully philosophical undertaking and also that Reagan was determined to give the philosophy a practical effect in government and American culture. Far from being what Democratic icon Clark Clifford called an “amiable dunce,” Reagan probably had an IQ, according to the estimates of friend and MIT doctorate-holder Marty Anderson, of an “exceptionally gifted” 170. Reagan read voraciously, wrote voluminously, edited incisively.

Having read so deeply and dedicated himself so strongly to a Lockean, Enlightenment-infused, libertarian-leaning American exceptionalism, Reagan proved almost entirely immovable on essential aims: Free people from government overreach, respect and encourage De Tocquevillean civil society, prudently (but not in a Utopian way) encourage freedom around the world, defeat Soviet totalitarianism, and achieve honorable and lasting peace through strength.

Yet, as Shirley spends the bulk of his book demonstrating, Reagan actually achieved these aims not through tactical intransigence but via remarkable flexibility. The entire midsection of The Search for Reagan is a series of case studies of effective Reagan compromises, effective first because Reagan’s deeply principled roots allowed him repeatedly to negotiate from a position of strength, but second because he repeatedly was willing to yield ground at the margins.

Thus Shirley shows us Reagan compromising somewhat on, but essentially winning, battles involving Hollywood labor disputes, California budget problems, national tax policy, and nuclear weapons, among others. He did so while fighting against, flummoxing, and eventually coopting a series of Democratic pols, including Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and, of course, Speaker Tip O’Neill, who previously has been accustomed to rolling over Republican rivals.

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Shirley says Reagan was “principled yet adaptable.” And “Reagan compromised, and he compromised often. But he never compromised himself, his beliefs, or his constituents.”

Far too many so-called conservatives these days have no idea how, when, what, or why to compromise. They consistently insist on winning everything they want but end up winning nothing. One would hope they would read and learn from The Search for Reagan, if only they had minds open and agile enough for its lessons. So far, they have shown otherwise, which is why they keep losing the more they yell, and yelling the more they lose.

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