I don’t love being in the position of psychologizing from afar (or attributing “false consciousness” to people I don’t really know), but that’s the sort of position we have to occupy once we agree on some pretty indisputable facts:
a) Reagan’s policies (as a whole) would put him to the left of the leaders of the Republican Party right now.
Ezra Klein has a pretty good summary of how the Reagan administration pivoted from some textbook conservative policies once they failed (hmm, these tax cuts don’t seem to be working) and implemented some non-conservative policies (these tax raises help offset the deficit, who woulda thunk it?). If you think Mitt Romney has to distance himself from the Massachusetts health care laws, imagine what Reagan would have to do to distance himself from four tax raises. Would Grover Norquist even let him into the tax pledge club? (Also, see here for more on the Gipper's heterodoxy from today's orthodox.)
b) Conservatives love Reagan.
Is this simply a case of nostalgia smoothing over the rough edges of Reagan’s policies (besides his tax raises, Reagan’s rough edges include engaging in diplomacy with our potential enemies without preconditions!)? Is this simply another case of conservatives revising history to make it more in-line with their own beliefs (e.g., the real racism today is against whites, therefore the Civil War wasn’t really about oppressing black people but about the government oppressing white people, big government argle bargle)? Is this simply biographical nostalgia, a longing for a time when they were young(er) and carefree?
I know I have to fight my urge towards monocausotaxophilia (thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for that word), the love of single causes to explain complex effects. With such a complex issue as this, it could be many or all of those factors and a few more besides. Actually, I'd guess that every conservative might have slightly different reasons for this, though I'd be surprised if those factors didn't factor in somehow for everyone. (Heck, it was the 80s--when we could watch Stallone shoot up Afghans and Soviets! When men could be men and women in business were marked as dragon ladies who just needed to inherit a baby to be turned into real women!--and what conservative wouldn't love to turn back the clock to that time?)
But on top of that question (why do conservatives love Reagan and ignore his policies?), I have another: why do they even need to hold up a hero without holding up his policies? My ungenerous impulse is to say that there's some more father-figure worship, some identity-politics that wants character without policy (policy often means compromise).
Does the left do this with, e.g., FDR? I don't see it; I bet if you Google N-grammed "FDR" vs. "New Deal" in left-liberal blogs, you'd find a pretty high number of people referencing policies rather than people. Is there a conclusion to be drawn here (a conclusion that isn't too self-serving, like "the left is actually interested in governance, whereas the right just wants an ideal myth")?