One of the most persistent truisms in politics is that America is a center-right nation. It’s as common as the idea that Ronald Reagan was the quintessential conservative president. And it’s equally untrue. America is a centrist country, but it’s also one in which the “right” is being constantly redefined.

Reagan: left, right and center

Ronald Reagan was a changeling. He was a labor organizer as head of the Screen Actors Guild, who as president broke the air traffic controllers union. He was all for gun control as California governor in the late 1960s, when it was Huey Newton and the Black Panthers who had the guns, and an ally of the NRA when he ran for president in 1980. He reverted back to being pro gun control after he and his aide, Jim Brady, were shot by a would-be assassin in 1981, and even helped President Bill Clinton get an assault weapons ban through congress in 1994.

Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign with a “states rights” speech near Philadelphia, Mississippi, site of the infamous murder of three civil rights workers in 1967, blowing a clear dog whistle to southern racists. He made the term “welfare queen” common parlance. But he also made Gen. Colin Powell the first black national security adviser to an American president, and his term saw the rise of a generation of black Republicans that included Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Reagan didn’t just do immigration reform: he did full-on amnesty for some 3 million undocumented immigrants.

He cut a deal with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neil to preserve Social Security and strengthen Medicare — a program he had railed against as evil socialism in the 1960s. And he raised taxes — multiple times — increased the debt ceiling, and exploded the deficit.

He also did nothing, in two terms, to tamper with abortion.

So was Reagan a liberal? Certainly not. But clearly, “conservatism” during Reagan’s time was defined much differently than it is today. Even his tough foreign policy stance toward the Soviet Union, in which Reagan kept the threat of nuclear war on the table, was full of rhetoric about “peace” (through strength) and Reagan even pursued nuclear arms reduction with Moscow.

It’s a sign of how far to the right the modern Republican Party has drifted, that Reagan is both their hero, and a figure who would have been run out of the conservative movement had he been in politics today.

What Reagan did succeed in doing was leaving behind a confident, politically-ascendant group of conservatives who have aggressively, and successfully, driven the media conversation, and the terms of the political debate, to the right.

Because of Reagan’s political success, including his vice president getting elected president after him, Democrats like Bill Clinton scrambled to shake off the nuclear freeze/anti-war/bleeding heart image they feared had marginalized their party out of power.

And so it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who undid the New Deal prohibition on banks gambling in the financial markets, and who signed the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t tell — which left in place the legal ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Clinton also signed welfare reform, in some ways codifying Reagan’s “welfare queen” myth into law.

George W. Bush scrambled the calculus even more — signing the “No Child Left Behind” Act co-authored by liberal Senator Ted Kennedy and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, while allying himself with the neoconservatives, for whom “right” means “hawkish on war and national security policy” — and not much else. Bush’s social conservative rhetoric excited the religious right, but like Reagan, he did absolutely nothing to turn his evangelical beliefs into federal bans on abortion or gay marriage.

Which brings us to President Barack Obama, whose second inaugural address prompted howls of “liberal tyranny!” from Republicans.

Next: a liberal speech?