"Conservatives Loved Reagan."
Not always. As early as 1982, after Reagan skirmished with Israel, declined to send U.S. troops to Central America, and refused to cut off Western loans to communist Poland, Commentary's Norman Podhoretz declared that neoconservatives were "sinking into a state of near political despair." New York Times columnist William Safire announced that "if Ronald Reagan fails to awake to the hard-liners' anger at his betrayal, he will discover that he has lost his bedrock constituency." By 1984, after Reagan withdrew troops from their peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Podhoretz moaned that "in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained" than his right-wing supporters had hoped.
But that was nothing compared with the howls of outrage that accompanied Reagan's dovish turn toward the Soviet Union. In 1986, when Reagan would not cancel his second summit with Gorbachev over Moscow's imprisonment of an American journalist, Podhoretz accused him of having "shamed himself and the country" in his "craven eagerness" to give away the nuclear store. Washington Post columnist George Will said the administration had crumpled "like a punctured balloon." When Reagan signed the INF Treaty, most Republicans vying to succeed him came out in opposition. Grassroots conservative leaders established the Anti-Appeasement Alliance to oppose ratification and ran newspaper advertisements comparing Gorbachev to Hitler and Reagan to Neville Chamberlain. Reagan, wailed Will, is "elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy."
Therein lay the rub. Reagan's conservative allies were mostly pessimists. They saw conflict as the eternal reality of world affairs. But Reagan was a radical optimist who thought that every story should have a happy ending. Will wrote that he "is painfully fond of the least conservative sentiment conceivable, a statement taken from an anti-conservative, Thomas Paine: 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Any time, any place, that is nonsense."
But it was because Reagan could envision a dramatically better world that he could see the opportunity Gorbachev offered -- and seized the chance to bring it about. His conservative critics, by contrast, were so convinced that the world was a nasty place that they blinded themselves to the possibility of radical progress, even when it was occurring before their very eyes.