National Review has an excellent piece on why conservatives could and should learn from Reagan’s example. Reagan was indeed one of the great fathers of the modern conservative movement. Russell Kirk laid the intellectual groundwork with his rediscovery of Burkean wisdom, and took conservatism from a reactionary and disjointed movement to a true political philosophy.
But it was Reagan who inherited the remains of Goldwater’s first attempt at creating this intellectual movement into a popular political movement. Unlike Goldwater, Reagan knew how to communicate with the American people. 1980 was a watershed year in American politics, the nadir of liberalism and the beginning of a political realignment that lasts to this day. Whether one believes in the conservative movement or not, it is undeniable that Reagan is the one responsible for making it a true political force.
Reagan could not have accomplished this without his essential political vision and courage of will. Reagan believed firmly in the values of individual economic liberty, limited government, the spirit of capitalism, and the end of Communism. While his administration was hardly perfect, and even Reagan admitted that the deficit always bothered him, he achieved his goals. The "evil empire" of the Soviet Union fell. Gorbachev may not have torn down the Berlin Wall, but the people of Berlin certainly did.
It’s ironic that Reagan’s critics who vilified him as a heartless conservative are no falling all over themselves to paint him as not being conservative in the first place. The fact is that while Reagan’s critics will pass on into the mists of history and be forgotten, a century from now schoolchildren will be quoting him when he demanded "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
It is also ironic that such a seminal moment was almost stopped by the State Department on the grounds that it would provoke the Soviets. The same liberal critics taking potshots at Reagan now are the ones who said that Reagan would cause World War III in the early 80’s. They were wrong then, and they haven’t grown any more correct over time.
Reagan stuck to his guns. He didn’t feel the need to place the modifier "compassionate" before his conservatism. He believed in the permanent things that Edmund Burke described. He believed that the best way to national greatness was not through government, but through the people. Even when the press was calling for his blood, even when the bureaucracy was trying desperately to get in his way, even when his decisions would lead to a political backlash, Reagan did what he knew to be right. He was not the sort of politician who tried to please everyone. He was the sort of politician who followed his beliefs. Like his left-liberal counterpart, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Reagan defined both himself as a leader and the best of his political movement.
Conservatives should learn from his example. He not only believed in conservatism, but he was able to express why conservatism was a better political philosophy than the liberalism of his Democratic competitors. He was not only The Great Communicator because of his oratorical skills, but because he communicated great ideas. He spoke to the people, plainly and clearly elucidating his beliefs. His optimism, his clarity, his courage, and his will are all textbook examples of leadership, both as a conservative, but as an American.