Nancy Reagan's death at 94 has the feeling both of tragedy and of metaphor.
The tragedy comes first. Reagan's role as an adoring and adored wife and mother is known — this love letter from Ronald Reagan to Nancy is worth reading and tearing up over — but as the New York Times writes, her influence on American politics is often underestimated. "Without Nancy, there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan," Michael Deaver, a top staffer to President Ronald Reagan and a close friend of the family, said in 2007.
Nancy Reagan played an important role in hiring and firing staff on her husband's campaigns and in his White House, most notably with the ouster of Chief of Staff Donald Regan in 1987. She was a prime driver of Ronald Reagan's eventual apology over the Iran-Contra arms sales. Ronald Reagan's presidency changed the shape of American politics, and Nancy Reagan played a powerful role in that revolution.
Her passing comes at a moment when the conservative movement the Reagans built appears to be cracking apart. Reagan's conservatism is remembered as a sunny, optimistic thing — a recollection that is perhaps colored slightly by nostalgia (it was Reagan, not Trump, who first used the slogan "Make America Great Again"), but is built on an important truth.
Immigration — the very issue tearing apart the Republican Party today — is perhaps the best example. In a 1980 primary debate with George H.W. Bush, Reagan was asked whether the children of unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools for free.
"Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?" Reagan replied. "Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they're working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And then when they want to go back they go back. Open the border both ways by understanding their problems."
Reagan would go on to sign a sweeping immigration reform bill that many in the Republican Party now deride as "amnesty."
This isn't to take away from Ronald or Nancy Reagan's conservatism, which was a sharp right turn for both the Republican Party and the country as a whole. But their political genius was to shape the pessimistic, angry conservatism of Barry Goldwater into a more hopeful, inclusive ideology — an ideology that could win elections and reshape American politics; an ideology that felt confident rather than scared.
Today, though, conservatism feels like it's falling back into its pre-Reagan despair. Rather than putting up a fence, Trump wants to put up a wall. Rather than believing in the essential greatness of America, conservatives today often speak as if the country is an election away from losing its magnificence forever.
Nancy Reagan was a living connection to a very different vision of what American politics, and conservative politics, could be. She will be missed.