The Imagined Reagan Will Live Forever

In 2012, the most popular baby names, according to the Social Security Agency, were Jacob for boys (18,899 little Jacobs) and Sophia for girls (22,158 wee Sophias). But holding on strong in the girl category, still cracking the top 100 at #97, was Reagan. No fewer than 3,072 proud, freedom-loving Americans named their girls after our 40th president that year, nearly a quarter-century after he left office.

Liberals, it need hardly be said, don't go in for that sort of thing. Would you consider naming your kid after a Democratic president? Probably not. I have a friend who named his son Truman, but let's just say that in school when the teacher calls his name, nobody has to ask which of the class's many Trumans she means. I'm sure there are some parents who have named their boys Barack, but even in 2009, at the height of President Obama's popularity, the name Barack didn't crack the top 1,000.

What's interesting about this isn't just the contrast between liberals and conservatives but the fact that even among conservatives, there's no one who even comes close to the kind of quasi-religious worship Reagan gets. It's partly because, depending on your definition of success, he was the most successful Republican president in the lifetime of most living Republicans. But even for people who remember his presidency, the actual details of that presidency have become completely irrelevant. Ronald Reagan now exists as purely as a symbol, an embodiment of every virtue one might admire, whether Reagan himself actually embodied those virtues or not.

So yesterday, John McCain went on a typically angry rant on the Senate floor against his colleagues who were balking at a bill to provide a package of aid to Ukraine, and charged them with heresy:

"You can call yourself Republicans. That's fine, because that's your voter registration. Don't call yourself Reagan Republicans," McCain said on the Senate floor. "Ronald Reagan would never, would never let this kind of aggression go unresponded to by the American people."

A more poisonous barb could not be thrust at a member of the GOP. Now the facts, as even John McCain surely remembers, are that Ronald Reagan let aggression "go unresponded to" all the time. Dan Drezner offered a little reminder (via Kevin Drum):

Those weren't exactly obscure, easily forgotten incidents. The 1983 Beirut bombing is particularly vivid: terrorists killed 241 Americans, and the mighty Reagan responded by bravely getting the hell out of Lebanon. But if you reminded a conservative of that, and said, "Look, I realize you love the guy, but his presidency was a little more complicated than you make it out to be," I'm pretty sure he'd be undeterred.

That's because a "Reagan Republican" isn't a Republican who admires the totality of the Reagan presidency. It's a Republican who worships the imagined Reagan, the one who was perfect in every way, who was forever strong and principled and wise and courageous and resolute and victorious in all things. That Reagan may be a fictional character, but they're not giving him up.

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