It has already been one year since Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, passed away to the cheers and adulation of an entire nation. It is fair to say that on the occasion of his passing, Reagan was deemed by the overwhelming number of commentators to be a highly successful president, one who helped revive the U.S. economy and America’s flagging spirits and whose goal of victory over rather than coexistence with Soviet Communism finally rid the world of the second great totalitarian threat of the 20th century.
The passage of time necessarily requires reevaluation and reexamination of any individual. Reagan’s reputation was extremely high through most of the 1980s, peaking in 1988 upon his retirement, but receded as the 1990 recession began and stagnated during the 1990s as various spokesmen from a hostile administration attacked Reagan’s domestic policies as "voodoo economics" and its foreign policies as inspired by "Star Wars." It was only with the end of the Clinton years and the coming of a new and friendlier administration, the world embrace of supply side economic policies, the focus on world terrorism as the next great menace to the West, and the dedication of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan in 2003 that Reagan’s historical reputation began its rapid rise that culminated in the celebration of his life one year ago.
And so we use this occasion one year after his death to review the continuing political and policy significance of Ronald Reagan and his life. How relevant are his experiences of 20 years ago to today’s problems? What are the continuing lessons about our politics, government and public policy that we can learn from the Reagan years? How do we reassess Reagan in light of the 2004 election, the presidency of George W. Bush, the legislative proposals for changing social security, medicare and education? Does Reagan continue to be a lodestar for Republican candidates in the future? Can Reagan’s handling of the Cold War teach us anything about our continuing battle with world terrorism?
If anything, Reagan’s principles are even more relevant in light of the events of the last year. Let me give you some examples.
First, governments throughout the world, continue to pursue so called "supply side" policies to foster economic growth and employment opportunities. In 1981, Reagan proposed his program of lowering marginal tax rates from a then staggering 70% to 35% over a three year period. He believed such high marginal rates discouraged work, savings and investment and subsidized tax avoidance. He proposed it at a time when inflation and interest rates were in double digits, unemployment high and the budget already in deficit. The program was called, among other things, "voodoo economics" and a "riverboat gamble" — and that was from Republicans. Happily, the economy rebounded, job growth was strong and, save for a very mild recession in 1990, America entered a sustained twenty year period of economic growth and prosperity. As Reagan noted when his economic policies began to take effect in 1983, "You know our policies must be working because they don’t call it Reaganomics anymore."
You would expect a conservative Republican Administration to pursue Reagan economic policies. What is more surprising is that a high ranking Treasury official of Mainland China recently described his government’s market oriented reforms as "Reaganomics." Governments in Asia and the Americas have also implemented such reforms in the past twenty years to revitalize their ecomomies.
Sadly, the last holdouts defending “the nanny state” are left of center governments in Old Europe and liberals here in America.
Second, Washington policymakers continue to study Reagan’s masterful handling of the end game of the Cold War and the end of Soviet style Communism for clues on how to engage our new foreign enemy — international terrorism. Reagan’s program involved a carrot and stick approach. He put aside a lifetime of hostility to bargain with Mikail Gorbachev, a new Soviet leader he felt he could deal with. Yet his policy also featured a tough side. He faced hostility from elite opinion, the governing class of Europe and liberal America. Large public rallies were held attacking his policies as provocative and dangerous. Yet, he stood firm in the face of such hostility. Reagan rallied the American people with muscular rhetoric designed to prepare the US for the fight against the enemy. He strongly believed in the power of words to rally the country in support of presidential policy. If Richard Nixon counseled his followers to "watch what we do, not what we say," Reagan would have responded, "We will do exactly what we say." He made strategic decisions to take the fight to the enemy, rather than just "containing" them. He believed in utilizing the full combination of American diplomatic, economic and military power to force retreat and finally defeat the Communist enemy. Finally, he believed that democracy is a positive message that speaks to the aspirations of all people around the world. We must never forget that on Reagan’s watch, the democracy movement began and swept into Central and South America and all of Eastern Europe. There were dozens more democracies in 1988 when Reagan left office than 1981 when he was inaugurated.
Reagan was constantly accused of offering "simple solutions to complex problems." While this presents a classic false choice, Reagan always believed that whatever policy one chooses, success required being firm and consistent in the face of naysayers and professional doubters. When quizzed by his national security advisor, Richard Allen, how he would sum up his Soviet policy, he said, "Dick, how about this: we win, they lose." Firmness of purpose and consistent implemention were hallmarks to Reagan’s view of presidential leadership. As such, Reagan adopted a policy of economic, diplomatic and rhetorical confrontation with the Soviets — and never deviated from that plan.
Likewise, the success of the Bush anti terror policy cannot be found, as Michael Moore would have us believe, in what the President did 60 minutes after the attack of 9-11, but rather what he has done for sixty months since that terrible day, which is to relentlessly pursue, hunt down and eliminate terrorists that wish to destroy America and the democratic movements that we lead worldwide.
Third, Ronald Reagan ended America’s short romance with self doubt induced by the 70s legacy of presidential malaise, Watergate corruption, economic stagnation and failure in Vietnam. He believed strongly in American exceptionalism, the idea that America had a special purpose in the world to preach freedom and be the "shining city on a hill." Contrary to the leftist critique of America which held that America was a racist, immoral and imperial power, he believed Americans were a moral and decent people and that American involvement in the world affairs made things better, not worse. Renewed self confidence, even more than military power, explains the final triumph over Communism.
George Will has written that historical theories such as Marxism "mock the idea of great persons, and the belief that the free choices of small groups could knock history out of its preordained grooves." Reagan’s Americanism reaffirms free will and the ability of free people to determine their own destiny. That is a lesson Americans cannot relearn too often.
Fourth, one must note that politically, the Reagan coalition endures a quarter century after his first election as president. The alliance of free market conservatives, traditional values family advocates, and Americans who support a more muscular, indeed unilateralist, foreign policy, continues to endure. It is instructive to reflect, as Craig Shirley will do, how much Reagan changed the center of gravity in the Republican Party before his election. There had never been another candidacy like his, even including Goldwater and Taft before him. The conservative coalition that Reagan began in 1976 and completed in 1980, continues to constitute a clear governing majority in the United States. In that sense, it has eclipsed in longevity, even the New Deal coalition, which brought Roosevelt and Truman electoral victories.
The defeat of John Kerry in 2004 merely confirmed the experiences of Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, George McGovern, and Hubert Humphrey before them, namely that it is very difficult for a northern liberal to be elected president. Yet, a Howard Dean party with a certain New York senator as de factor leader would suggest that liberals have yet to learn that lesson. As such, one must conclude that, despite ongoing policy differences, the conservative coalition’s future electoral prospects remain bright indeed.
It is certainly gratifying to partisans to note that one year after his death, Ronald Reagan, depending on the poll you look at, is the first or second most admired president in history. Yes, part of that can be explained by the remarkable sendoff the country gave him just last year, and part to his pleasing personality and gentlemanly manner. But I believe that a far better explanation lies in the timelesness of his ideas, the appeal of those ideas to ordinary Americans, and to the persistence with which he pursued those goals throughout a long and distinguished public career. Reagan will remain a consequential president because, along with the writer Richard Weaver, he believed that "ideas have consequences" and he conducted his public life, and his presidency, accordingly.