FLASHBACK: December 31, 1999Man of the Century: Ronald Reagan

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the cover of the December 31, 1999, issue of HUMAN EVENTS.) As the presidency of Ronald Reagan recedes into history, his greatness becomes clearer. One sign of this is the growing appreciation of Reagan’s leadership by liberal historians who disagreed with his politics. A striking example appears in Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation, co-authored by Franklin Roosevelt biographer James MacGregor Burns and Georgia J. Sorenson, a strategist for the presidential campaign of Bill Bradley. “As President, Reagan was derided for vagueness on details, excessive delegation of authority — indeed, as a marionette controlled by puppeteers in his administration and outside,” write Burns and Sorenson.” The critics did not understand. Like a Hollywood director, he had only to preside over an agreed-upon script enacted by actors, themselves united by ideology. This ideological conservatism was far more coherent than long-fragmented liberal doctrine.” These two liberals even praise Reagan for campaigning in pursuit of an ambitious ideological agenda, a necessity, they argue, for a president who wants to achieve anything of significance. Won the Cold War In the immediate aftermath of the Reagan presidency, this sort of nonpartisan perspective would have been impossible. The wounds of many battles were still fresh. The magnitude and permanence of the ideological transformation achieved by Reagan were far from clear. Few anticipated that some of Reagan’s most long-sought domestic goals, such as abolition of the federal welfare entitlement, were possible, let alone just a few short years from fruition. No one could have imagined that major policy breakthroughs on the budget, welfare and law enforcement would be presided over in the l990s by a liberal Democratic president with the political nimbleness to get away with betraying his fellow liberals, and take continuous bows once the new conservative policies proved successful. In January l989 it could not have been known that Reagan’s leadership had decisively transformed not just the nation but the world. When Reagan left office, only one entrenched Marxist-Leninist government, Grenada, had ever been removed from power. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan had been completed, but even that country’s Communist regime still clung to power. So did the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Within a few years, everything changed. Where the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had stood astride almost the entire expanse of the north Eurasian land mass, there are now more than two dozen independent countries, many of them democratic and none of them (with the exception of Belarus) truly Communist. Elsewhere, Soviet-style communism survives only in a handful of countries, including Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. Marxism — indeed, socialism — has been extinguished in almost all the countries dominated by the Soviet Union as recently as l980. Changes this sweeping are ironically bathed in a retrospective aura of inevitability. How could an idea so thoroughly discredited ever have amounted to much in the first place? Could Reagan, or any person, really have had that much to do with a change so quick and so complete? Such arguments are inherently difficult to settle. If one starts from a premise that is fundamentally determinist — the view that at any given historical moment, humanity is in the grip of vast, impersonal social forces — any decision by a political leader, no matter how effective it looks either at the time or in retrospect, can be explained away. Eleven years ago, Reagan critics could argue that while he may have been a gifted candidate and publicist — the “Great Communicator” — he did not really change much in the world. That argument is now impossible because the pre-Reagan world of l980 has disappeared. So the remaining Reagan critics have adopted the opposite argument. They now say he was the passive or unconscious, if genial, beneficiary of vast social and political trends he had little or nothing to do with. Carter’s Malaise But they face one inconvenient fact: When Reagan took office in l98l, none of the trends we are so familiar with today were anywhere in evidence. Just l9 years ago, socialism still stood as the dominant idea of the 20th century. It looked anything but terminal. In the wake of the worldwide social upheaval of the l960s, it appeared to enjoy resurgent strength. The Soviet bloc was not retreating, but advancing. During the l970s, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Nicaragua all fell under Marxist dictatorships. When rebels threatened to topple the Communist regime in Afghanistan in l979, the Soviets invaded the country to back up a new puppet government. It was the first direct Soviet military intervention outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. In Western Europe, the major political event of the l970s was the rise of Eurocommunism. In l976, the Communist Party received 34 percent of the vote in Italy, to 38 percent for the Christian Democrats. In Portugal in l975, a right-wing civilian dictatorship was ousted by leftist army officers who came within an eyelash of installing a Communist dictatorship at NATO’s western anchor. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at one point ordered a cutoff of all American aid to the democratic opposition, citing the hopelessness of their cause. The United States was not seen as the dominant superpower — it had the earmarks of a fading one. In the wake of the disastrous SALT arms control treaties negotiated in l972 by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the United States closed down its anti-ballistic missile program while the Soviet Union was permitted to take, for the first time, an overwhelming lead in intercontinental ballistic missiles. In Western Europe, the U.S. was having difficulty persuading its NATO allies to deploy intermediate Pershing II and cruise missiles to counter a menacing Soviet buildup of mobile intermediate missiles. Iran’s pro-Western monarchy was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by viciously anti-American Islamic radicals. The world watched as diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran were taken hostage and held by a foreign government for over a year while the president of the United States attempted unsuccessfully to negotiate their release. The economic climate, in the United States and the world, bore scant resemblance to that of today. There was no bull market and not much talk about IRAs and 401(k)s. No one was writing about the end of socialism. People were talking about a crisis of capitalism consisting of unprecedented double-digit inflation, interest rates that climbed as high as 2l percent as Reagan took office, the rise of the Rust Belt and the de-industrialization of America, OPEC oil embargoes, drivers waiting in interminable lines to buy price-controlled gasoline and the new phenomenon of “stagflation” — inflation and unemployment rising rapidly at the same time. President Carter and a Democratic Congress enacted massive payroll tax increases and new energy taxes and price controls in l977 and l979, as extraordinary inflation lifted millions of taxpayers into higher and higher brackets in an unindexed tax code with rates ranging up to 70 percent. In a televised speech in late l979, Carter singled out a national sense of “malaise” as the biggest problem facing America. The welfare rolls, violent crime, and illegal drug use were skyrocketing in the United States. The most fashionable new cause among social activists was the welfare rights movement. Carter’s White House adviser for narcotics, Dr. Peter Bourne, advocated selective decriminalization of drugs and was forced to resign when it was learned he was putting his idea into practice by writing illegal prescriptions to fellow administration officials suffering from stress. In his inaugural address, Reagan cautioned Americans that things would not get better all at once — and they did not. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, appointed in desperation in l979 by Jimmy Carter to slow down a worldwide run on the dollar, sat on the economy by keeping interest rates very high, and the Reagan recession of 1981-82 proved to be the most severe downturn since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate peaked at l0.7 percent in the months after Reagan’s tax rate reduction took effect. Resolve at Reykjavik But even before he could claim any great success for his economic program, Reagan began acting in a way utterly different from his immediate predecessors. He deregulated petroleum prices as soon as he took office in January l98l. When the nationwide union of air traffic controllers went on strike, Reagan dismissed them all. This was a decision, taken against the warnings of all his advisers, that was widely noticed at home and abroad, and not just among those interested in labor relations. This was not a president of idle threats. Before he was finished, Reagan had cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. The economic expansion he sparked lasted more than seven years and generated 20 million new jobs. When the Volcker Fed finally eased interest rates in August l982, the stock market began a remarkable five-year surge. The crash of l987 was widely seen as the precursor of recession and the end of Reaganomics — but it proved to be neither. The Bush recession of l990-91 and the stock market retreats of l987, l990 and l998 turned out to be relatively brief interruptions in one of the strongest sustained performances in the economic and financial history of the United States, or for that matter of any country. It is true that the most striking economic policy change achieved by Reagan, the cut in the top tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, has been partially reversed by Presidents Bush and Clinton, with a top rate of nearly 40 percent under present law. But most economists stress that in looking at the magnitude of a tax rate change, the key measurement is take-home pay — the percentage of the last dollar earned that the taxpayer gets to keep. Before Reagan, with the Carter-era top tax rate of 70 percent, the taxpayer kept 30 cents of the last dollar earned. Today, the comparable figure is 60 cents, a doubling of after-tax rewards at the top level of income. This is a sea change — and one that has been imitated to one degree or another all over the world. The progressive income tax is alive and well, but the confiscatory income tax — with marginal rates that ranged as high as 98 percent in pre-Thatcher Britain — is pretty much a thing of the past. Only a handful of countries still have income tax brackets much above 50 percent. Perhaps even more than privatization of previously state-owned industries, this is the key benchmark of the decline of the socialist idea. In measuring the success of a political leader, it seems sensible to ask a series of very simple questions: What trend or condition did the politician promise to change? What did he say he would do to change it? To what degree did he succeed in getting his policy adopted? To what degree did the policy, once adopted, reverse the trend or ameliorate the condition the politician originally campaigned against? By these standards, Reagan was the best president of the 20th century. When he took office, Reagan faced a severe economic crisis, an ominous trend in foreign policy, and a decline in national morale. When he left office, the economic crisis was over, foreign policy was on the verge of a historic breakthrough, and national morale was restored. None of these successes came instantaneously and none were achieved without pain and controversy. They took courage, persistence and faith in the cause. In l982, Reagan’s economic policy looked on the brink of failure. In l986, when Reagan walked away from what looked like a successful summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, rather than agree to abandon strategic defense, his carefully cultivated relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev seemed about to turn to ashes. In l987, Reagan became enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, which for a time threatened his presidency and the gains in national morale he had earlier achieved. Yet when he left office, Reagan had the highest approval rating for a departing president in the history of public opinion polling. Problems faced. Solutions offered. Mandates won. Obstacles overcome. Solutions tested. Missions accomplished. Electorate satisfied. These are the fundamentals of political success, and Reagan had them all. But it was the severity of the problems he faced, the durability of the solutions he fashioned, and, most tellingly, his ability to change the direction of the country against the grain of pre-existing trends and assumptions that place Reagan’s achievements above those of any other 20th century president. Franklin Roosevelt changed the face of the U.S. government in the l930s — for the worse — but Roosevelt’s America did not start the trend of wealthy countries toward centralization, it completed it. Compared to Europe, the U.S. lagged behind when it came to erecting a heavily taxed, regulatory welfare state. Reagan’s successful reversal of the same trend half a century later was much more surprising because it made the United States (along with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain) a leading rather than lagging indicator of the global political economy. The spreading adoption of free markets since Reagan left office, as well as the continued strength of the capitalist revitalization here at home, further confirm the importance of the Reaganite turning point. Roosevelt’s success as a war leader in World War II had lasting consequence, by placing the United States at the center of global politics. But as significant as that was, Roosevelt’s success was a completion of the failed effort of his mentor, Woodrow Wilson, in World War I. Roosevelt finished what Wilson botched. Still, elevating the United States to the center of global politics did not run against the grain of existing trends. It was a widely expected event. Reagan’s victory in the Cold War was momentous, unexpected, and has enduringly altered world politics for the better. When Reagan took office, it was hard to find anyone who thought victory by the West in the Cold War was inevitable. No one, except possibly Reagan himself, thought the dissolution of the Soviet Union could happen any time soon. When Reagan consigned communism to the “ashheap of history” in a l982 speech in England, many of his political supporters found themselves cringing at his “naïveté.” In retrospect, what Soviet vulnerability did Reagan perceive that led him to make effective decisions? Though the Soviet military machine was awesome and real, Reagan (along with two senior advisers, William Casey and William Clark) sensed that the rest of Moscow’s physical resources were stretched dangerously thin. Continuing denial of most-favored-nation trade status, diplomatic obstruction of the European-financed Soviet oil pipeline, inauguration of the Reagan Doctrine of anti-Communist insurgency in the Third World and proclamation of the Strategic Defense Initiative were all designed to strain the Soviet economic base further, or at least serve notice that the Soviets could expect further such stretching well into the foreseeable future. We now know from declassified Soviet documents that these and similar decisions had much of their desired physical and psychological effect. ‘Evil Empire’ The other big thing Reagan knew is that Soviet communism was based on lies, and that telling the truth about it could have an impact far beyond what the experts imagined. In his very first presidential news conference in l98l, Reagan described the Soviet leaders as men who will tell any lie to achieve their aims. Most reporters who were there thought Reagan had made an inadvertent blunder, but it was not inadvertent and it was no blunder. Even less inadvertent was the phrase “evil empire” that Reagan uttered in direct defiance of the State Department, and after listening to many expert explanations of why using such a phrase might be a dangerous mistake. Reagan’s handling of the Soviet Union had room for honey as well as vinegar, particularly after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March l985. Reagan achieved considerable rapport with Gorbachev, somewhat to the surprise of Reagan’s liberal and dovish critics. Reagan particularly welcomed and encouraged Gorbachev’s announced policy of glasnost, or openness. Reagan sensed that the Soviet system as it had long existed could not withstand such openness. The more knowledgeable, better educated, more sophisticated Gorbachev — Time‘s “Man of the Decade” for the l980s — had no clue that glasnost would put such strains on his empire. In every way that mattered, Reagan’s diplomacy ran circles around Gorbachev, with momentous consequences that became fully evident only after Reagan’s retirement. Despite the encouraging signs mentioned at the beginning of this article, the debate about Reagan’s leadership will long outlast the century in which he thrived. But the simple facts about Reagan’s presidency, the trends he confronted and the very different trends he left behind, are beginning to win him a ranking far higher than appeared likely a decade ago. When all of us who tried to help him and kept underestimating him are dead and gone, this will be remembered as a dangerous, revolutionary century — but one which, near its end, produced a great American president who tackled huge problems and left behind a better country and a safer and freer world. The 2lst century should be so lucky.