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How Great was Ronald Reagan? Our 40th President's Place in History

 

HOW GREAT WAS RONALD REAGAN?

Our 40th President's Place in History

A Symposium

How will President Reagan be most remembered? How, if at all, has he changed American politics and government? Has he been one of America's great presidents? Has he been a conservative president? To what other presidencies might the Reagan administration be compared? These questions were put to seven leading political historians and presidential biographers.

STEPHEN E. AMBROSE

A funny thing happened to Ronald Reagan on the way to his place in history. At the three-quarter point, he made a sharp left turn, then another, and ended his journey going in the opposite direction from his start. Initially, he was headed towards the title of the toughest Cold War president of all. His rhetoric was bellicose in the extreme, as "evil empire" replaced detente. When martial law descended on Poland, Reagan tried to organize an economic blockade of the Soviet Union. On the military front, he launched the greatest arms race in history, topped by the single most expensive weapons system ever undertaken.

But history will remember Reagan as the first Cold War president to preside over eight years of unbroken peace, the first to reach an arms reduction accord with the Soviets, and the American president who helped make it possible for Mikhail Gorbachev to begin the process of restructuring Soviet society.

Historians will also stress the gap between Reagan's domestic goals and his accomplishments. Most obvious is the deficit; what he promised to eliminate he has allowed to swell beyond comprehension. On the social agenda, abortion remains legal, prayer in the schools illegal. Reagan's failure in the war against drugs and related crime activities is so great that drugs were the number one issue in the 1988 presidential campaign.

Nevertheless, Reagan will be remembered as the president who reversed the decades-old flow of power to Washington. By dismantling some federal programs, and reducing others, he forced the states and the cities to assume more responsibility for running their own shows. If he failed to break the Democratic hold on Congress, he did force the Democratic Party to move to the right.

When Reagan entered politics 22 years ago virtually every Democrat outside Dixie identified himself, proudly, as a liberal; today, in large part because of Reagan, almost every Democrat in the nation tries to call himself a conservative.

Bid for Greatness: Tax Reform

These are important changes, but not of such a magnitude to earn Reagan a title of "great." The great presidents are the ones who bring permanent changes in society. Teddy Roosevelt and conservation and trust-busting, as one example, or Woodrow Wilson and the Federal Reserve System, Franklin Roosevelt and Social Security, Harry Truman and the integration of the armed forces, Dwight Eisenhower and the interstate highway system, Lyndon Johnson and Medicare and civil rights.

Reagan's bid for greatness is tax reform, and on this one it is just too early to tell. If the doom sayers are right and we are dragged into a depression by the deficit and the trade imbalance, Reagan's tax policy will be reversed and forgotten. If the optimists are right and the economy continues to grow, the new tax rates will become permanent and Reagan will be blessed for his wisdom and courage.

Like Ike and JFK

Comparing Reagan to other presidents produces mixed results. He has been very like Jack Kennedy in a number of ways: cutting taxes to stimulate the economy, accepting large deficits in order to step up the pace of the arms race, indulging in Cold War rhetoric. He has been like Dwight Eisenhower in a number of ways: talking tough while maintaining the peace, using the CIA's covert capabilities rather than the Armed Forces' overt firepower to support his policies in the Third World, using a show of force rather than force itself in the Middle East while attempting to maintain an even-handed policy toward the antagonists. Reagan has also been very like Eisenhower in his tremendous personal popularity, as well as in his inability to use that popularity to promote the Republican Party.

Therein lies the biggest difference between Reagan and Nixon. Many people admired Nixon, almost no one ever liked him. Almost everyone likes Reagan, although not so many admire him. Every scandal in the Nixon administration came home to stick to the president; the Reagan administration's scandals have been more numerous, and in the case of Iran/Contra, more serious, but none of them have stuck to the president.

Whether that was just plain dumb luck or brilliant politics Reagan's biographers will argue for a long time to come.

STEPHEN E. AMBROSE is a biographer of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon.

M. E. BRADFORD

One political era most differs from another in the language used by those in power. We know that a watershed is coming when that language starts to change. We are now hearing a new idiom in the speech of public figures, one in sharp contrast to the language that originally defined the Reagan Revolution. That speech was a universe of discourse, a network of rhetorical questions, assumptions, normative terms, and modifiers that has given the last 10 years an identifiable momentum. Even though the sitting vice president was chosen to be president in November, this now-familiar political idiom will not long survive the changing of the guard. About the promise of individual liberty and responsibility, we will hear less and less; about the benevolence of government, more. The thought of such subtraction makes us self-conscious about what we will lose. Thus, these remarks are openly valedictory of the rhetoric of the Reagan presidency, the eloquence by which we were so securely environed.And very soon this will be the attitude of most conservatives, however frequently we have lost patience with President Reagan while he has been in office.

For all things change when the expectations generated by political discourse shift. In recent months, conservatives have argued that tax reform and tax cuts have made it difficult for politicians coming after Reagan to Postulate the necessity for creative spending; to insist that government, if properly concerned for the unfortunate, should throw money at social problems. For a time I shared that opinion. Now I doubt its validity. Leftism is a virus in the bloodstream of our body politic, present in authoritative appeals to tolerance and peace, fairness, charity, and a natural right to the property of others. It will not go away. It has a ground in envy and resentment, which are the fashionable modern responses to eminence and distinction of every kind.

The Left in Disguise

Yet the political success of Ronald Reagan has forced the contemporary Left to disguise the intransigent emotional core of its world view behind talk of heart-rending circumstances and imminent disasters, which by reason of their severity cancel every consideration of means or ends. Assuredly, the task that President Reagan set for himself has not been completed. The practical consequences of his triumphs have been adumbrated by continuing Democratic power on Capitol Hill, by a press overwhelmingly on the left, and by the timidity of too many of his servants. We must remember that he was allowed to govern for only one term. The rest has been a holding action, undercut by concern for respectability and by a preoccupation with the 'Judgment of history." Nevertheless, because of Reagan, no serious national politician now wishes to be identified simply as a "liberal." Facing President Reagan, leftists prefer to be described as "competent" and "compassionate." Beyond such partial characterizations, they deal only in personalities, in the dark arts of vilification, or in the outrageous allegation that Democratic omnibus continuing appropriations prove Republican fiscal irresponsibility.

Reagan reaffirmed with eloquence the continuing validity and vitality of the American Dream. In this more than in any policies or decisions lie his legacy and enduring claim to greatness.

-George H. Nash

This president has taught those who share his politics how to conduct a national campaign-how to give limited government, strong national defense, and a check on inflation mass appeal. He has shown us how to do this with a high heart and good humor, making conservatism an optimistic creed. Moreover, he has put to rest forever the old axiom that no candidate for the presidency can run as a conservative and be elected. Finally, with the counsel of Attorney General Edwin Meese, he has compounded these achievements by choosing judges who will defend the Constitution as it has not been defended in over 50 years. These appointments are this president's greatest accomplishment.

I leave aside the effort of the Reagan administration in Central America, its role in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. They involve business that is far from complete. Along with much of the Reagan agenda, their disposition must wait upon his legitimate successors: those who will go forward with implacable determination regardless of the enmity that confronts them. Ronald Reagan will be remembered for the initiatives he set in motion with his anti-statist rhetoric, and for changing through such language the current of our politics almost as dramatically as that current was changed in 1932. The most popular of our modern presidents, he has in his virtues and personal style symbolized our national character, not necessarily as it is, but as we wish it to be.

M. E. BRADFORD is professor of English at the University of Dallas. He has written A Better Guide than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution; A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution; and other books and essays on American history and southern conservatism.

ALONZO L. HAMBY

After Ronald Reagan has endured the usual biographical cycle of bunk, debunk, and rebunk he likely will be remembered as an outstanding national cheerleader. If such an assertion sounds disparaging, it should not. In the Media Age, rhetorical leadership has become one of the presidency's most important functions. In part through hard policies but even more through his skills as a communicator, Reagan has successfully lifted the morale of a nation that in 1980 was wallowing in pessimism and uncertainty. Long accustomed to the spotlight and the microphone and understanding the way in which the media magnifies one's personality, Reagan has turned what was a liability for most of his predecessors into an asset of major proportions.

Scholars and others with a large view of the world will remember him also as a participant in a transnational movement against the excesses of the regulatory/welfare state, whether overtly socialist (as in much of the world) or marginally social-democratic (as in the United States). It seems doubtful, however, that they will consider him the outstanding political leader and conceptualizer of the return to free market capitalism. That honor will be reserved for Margaret Thatcher, a political captain of notably greater will and tenacity.

It is in the realm of the substantive rather than the symbolic that future generations will raise the greater number of questions about Reagan. Their ultimate judgment probably will be that like most American presidents he wore his ideology lightly and was more notable for his flexibility than for his dogmatism.

Was he conservative? Sure, but not a "hard" conservative. Clearly, he has done little about the social agenda of the Cultural Right other than make an occasional speech stating an opposition to abortion and/or affirming traditional Christian values.

Reagan has largely had his way on economics but with policies that do not fit well into traditional definitions of economic  conservatism. Many observers, not all of them liberal, argue that in the long run we will pay for a prosperity set in motion by massive budget and international trade deficits. Reagan's defenders may confound (or simply infuriate) them by invoking Lord Keynes' dictum that in the long run we are all dead. It remains to be seen whether the American economy is capable of generating the output to cover our internal and international debts with little or no pain.

It is notable, moreover, that even in the realm of economics Reagan has taken the easy path rather than the hard one. For all his rhetoric in favor of a balanced budget, he has consistently refused to fight for one. Instead, he has rather easily acquiesced in one of the worst tendencies of democracy, its cupidity. Despite the incessant rhetorical handwringing about the plight of the poor, the vast bulk of federal "social programs" involve some sort of subsidy to the middling groups in American society. It is, no doubt, a realization of this situation and along with it a basic political survival instinct that has caused the administration to back away from programmatic hit lists.

Pandering to Popular Appetite

Reaganran up against a popular appetite for federal benefits without parallel in our history. He and the people around him were able to deal with it only by pandering to it. The Ronald Reagan who announced that the elderly will receive an increase in Social Security benefits whether or not inflation runs high enough to trigger it is hardly the leader of a counterrevolution. One wonders what historians will make of all the talk of a conservative era in a decade when federal social spending actually increased.

Reagan has left the nation stronger, more prosperous, and more confident than he found it. Yet it will be difficult to argue that he has achieved greatness.

-Alonzo L. Hamby

It is even harder to determine how they may classify a man whose foreign policy has meandered all over the ideological spectrum and has run in qualitative terms from the steadfast defense of the American nuclear presence in Europe and the liberation of Grenada to the muddled Reykjavik summit and the shabby arms-for-hostages dealings in Iran. That said, it is a pretty sure thing that most historians will approve of the recent moves toward detente with the Soviet Union, in part because most historians are liberal but also because if present indicators hold up, Reagan will have done the right thing. (One wishes, however, that he could have found a better way to go about it than tinkering with the nuclear balance.)

Has he been a great president? Let us begin with the acknowledgment that at the very least in the short run, Reagan has left the nation stronger, more prosperous, and more confident than he found it. Unless sometime in the next several years we fall victim to a catastrophe that can be convincingly traced to his policies, it will be hard to rate him a subpar chief executive. Yet it will be difficult even for those in sympathy with him to argue that he has achieved greatness.

Disconnected Administrative Style

Itis clear now that his administrative style has been not simply "detached" but virtually disconnected. It is well for presidents to avoid obsession with detail and to keep their eyes on the larger goals, but Reagan exemplified the opposite extreme to a fault. He too often appeared indifferent not simply to detail but to the personnel who managed his presidency, not just ill informed but positively removed from the world of policy execution.

He does not seem to have made much change in the large patterns of American politics. If he has temporarily changed the momentum of American foreign and domestic policy, he has not posed a frontal challenge to the assumptions of the Great Society, nor has he established a new majority. Public opinion surveys that record a widespread pessimism about the future may show that even his achievement as a morale booster has been superficial. He has sustained himself politically by taking the easy way out on the tough issues. Ideologues may call this cowardice; political professionals will characterize it as prudence. In either case, it may have been the price of self-preservation in assuming the leadership of a people who want to avoid difficult choices. What it is not is an indicator of greatness.

Reagan will be remembered as the president who reversed the decades-old flow of power to Washington.

-Stephen E. Ambrose

As for comparisons: Reagan has been an uplifter and rhetorician comparable to the two Roosevelts and Wilson; a conservative exponent of capitalism in the tradition of Coolidge and Eisenhower; a cold warrior and advocate of U.S. international leadership akin to Truman, Kennedy, and Nixon. These analogies demonstrate the skill and strength of a political leader able to draw on diverse themes and weave them together into a formidable personal coalition. Whether he has left something more durable remains for all of us, especially George Bush, to see.

ALONZO L. HAMBY is professor of history at Ohio University. His most recent book is Liberalism and Its Challengers: FDR to Reagan. He is now at work on a biography of Harry S. Truman.

FORREST MCDONALD

Forecasting history's judgment of a presidency is a tricky business. In addition to lacking the perspective that time alone can provide, we are impaired by two features that inhere in the office. The first of these is that the presidency is dual in character: the president is head of government, which is an administrative and managerial function, and he is also head of state, which is a ceremonial, ritualistic, and symbolic function. Our tendency is to judge the president, while he is in office, largely in terms of the latter, and therefore personality weighs heavily. Scarcely a generation need pass, however, before personality is forgotten and other criteria come to bear. Accordingly, such presidents as Lincoln, Wilson, and Truman, whose personalities were far from charismatic and who were regarded as failures by most of their contemporaries, can come to be regarded as great; and the likes of William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, immensely popular when in office (and for a brief time after their martyrdom), can subsequently come to be viewed as ciphers.

The second feature arises from the lame-duck syndrome. During his first term, the president and the members of his party in Congress, looking forward to the support they can provide one another when seeking reelection, tend to cooperate effectively. After the president is reelected, the bond of reciprocal dependency is dissolved; and besides, the president, who is almost invariably returned to office by a greatly increased majority, tends to regard dealing with Congress as beneath his dignity. The president thus moves toward overseas adventuring, where his hands are relatively free, and congressmen of both parties are progressively estranged from him. At some point during his second term he becomes fair game for the most vicious attacks from politicians and press alike, and scandals (real and bogus) become commonplace. This is not something that began with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, or even with those of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. It is the fate suffered by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and almost every other two-term president. But as time passes, the attacks are forgotten and the achievements (or failures) in foreign policy tend to determine the president's niche in history.

Prophet or Silly Ass?

Bearing these considerations in mind, one can rise above the provincialism of the present in appraising a presidency, but there is yet another difficulty. Whether history will regard Ronald Reagan favorably or otherwise will depend in large measure upon the course of history yet to come. This is not always the case. Presidencies that are devoid of significant achievement, such as those of Franklin Pierce and Jimmy Carter, are unlikely to be reevaluated later, and the same is true of calamitous presidencies such as those of James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. But with active presidents, Reagan among them, the verdict of history is likely to be many years in the coming.

It seems entirely probable that the judgment on Reagan will turn mainly upon two pivots, his domestic economic policies and his negotiations regarding nuclear disarmament. Conservatives have been greatly disappointed in his economic policies, believing that deregulation and the cutting of income taxes have not gone nearly far enough and fearing that the budget deficits portend disaster. But if the economic systems of the world continue to move toward depoliticization and the primacy of the market, if prosperity continues to attend that trend, if the budget is brought under control without a new round of worldwide inflation, and if the time bomb that is Social Security does not explode, Reagan will be regarded as the man who led America out of the abyss of socialist stagnation. These are admittedly large ifs.

The returns on that aspect of his presidency will be in fairly soon-within a generation or so. Those having to do with nuclear disarmament might take longer, especially if Mikhail Gorbachev manages to stay in power. If the various reactionary elements in the Soviet Communist Party can oust Gorbachev, as they would love to do, Reagan will look a silly ass for having changed his mind about the evil empire. If Gorbachev by some miracle manages to pull off his perestroika, Reagan will be made to seem a prophet and a great force for world peace.

FORREST MCDONALD, Professor of history at the University of Alabama, is the author of Novus Ordo Seclorum. He was the Jefferson Lecturer for 1987. He and his wife Ellen Shapiro McDonald have written a forthcoming book, Requiem: Variations on 18th Century Themes.

 

GEORGE H. NASH

It is not difficult to identify the principal initiatives for which Ronald Reagan will be remembered. After a decade of national defeatism and doubt, he strode into office in 1981-confident of America's ideals and promise, and of the ability of his countrymen to conquer their malaise. He instituted startling tax-rate reductions and other measures that have produced (his supporters argue) the longest peacetime economic expansion in the history of the United States. In foreign policy he initiated a massive rearmament program to contain Soviet imperialism and expounded America's democratic faith without shame. In doing so he broke, without fully dispelling, the debilitating grip of the "post-Vietnam syndrome" and the mentality of "blame America first." In the realm of social issues, he set out deliberately to curb the "imperial judiciary" and reorient a left-leaning Supreme Court.

Not all of his accomplishments were so programmatic.

Perhaps equally significant is the fact that during the Reagan years principled, articulate conservatives gained unprecedented access to executive power and to the nation's policy-making elite. The Reagan Revolution of 1981 was not a conventional shift in legislative priorities and personnel; it was an intellectual challenge that undermined the sanctity of the status quo. It did not overthrow that status quo; Reagan never had the votes-or perhaps the intent-to do so. But his administration for at least a time altered the terms of public debate and tarnished the intellectual pretensions of social democracy. In these subtle but influential ways Reagan altered American politics more than he did public policy.

Contingent Legacy

Contemplating this substantial legacy, I am nonetheless struck by how tentative and contingent it remains. Is the economic boom of the 1980s, for example, a healthy phenomenon for which Reaganomics may take credit, or is it (as critics maintain) a false prosperity built upon the quicksands of debt? Events during the next few years will tell-and will thereby color our judgment of the Reagan record. Similarly, was the revival of American military strength and morale in the early '80s a lasting achievement or only a fleeting spasm in a dreary saga of declension? Here, as well, the post-Reagan era will inform us. So, too, for the Supreme Court; all that Reagan has done to reshape it could quickly be undone in the next presidential term. And despite the entry of conservatives into the Washington mainstream, the Reagan Revolution is not yet institutionalized. To a considerable degree, then, Reagan's place in history will depend upon the deeds of his successor.

To those who grumble that he has not reconstituted the political economy of Herbert Spencer, one can only say welcome to politics and welcome to America.

-James Nuechterlein

If all this creates uncertainty about our 40th president's eventual niche in the history books, another factor is likely to embroil him in extended controversy. For Ronald Reagan, like Woodrow Wilson and Abraham Lincoln before him, has been guided in office by a compelling moral vision. Because he has been a principled (and not merely managerial) chief executive, Reagan has profoundly antagonized those who espouse competing social visions-notably the New Deal, Great Society, and New Left. He has threatened their intellectual hegemony and sense of superiority, much as FDR threatened those Republicans of his day who considered themselves America's natural aristocracy. As custodians of a regime under powerful ideological assault, Reagan's adversaries have a vested interest in disparaging his presidency. For this reason alone, his standing at the bar of history will long engender passion. Such is the fate of those who delegitimate (but do not overturn) the status quo.

Eisenhower's Augustan Age

How,then, will Ronald Reagan go down in history? As a conservative Roosevelt who redirected America's course for half a century? As a second Coolidge of liberal caricature who fiddled while the economy burned? As a benign, Ike-like grandfather who ruled for an insignificant interlude during America's inexorable march toward socialism? As a rejected prophet like Wilson whose vision triumphed only after his death?

My own hunch is that an Eisenhower analogy may be the closest one-although not the analogy dear to yesterday's liberals. A generation ago, when Eisenhower left office, he was widely disdained by "the best and the brightest" as an aging golfer whose presidency had brought little but stagnation. It was time, his youthful successor asserted, to "get America moving again." The sequel was the hubris and tragedies of the '60s. Only now, a generation later, have historians begun to perceive Eisenhower as an effective, "hidden-hand" executive who governed during what in retrospect appears an Augustan age.

One can't help wondering how much more he could have achieved had he been a more forceful, involved chief executive.

-Karl O'Lessker

Will historians someday gaze similarly on our own decade and its dominant public figure? No one can say. But I do venture to predict that our 40th president will be adjudged a singular statesman, and for a reason few of his critics understand. As the finest political orator of our era, Ronald Reagan reaffirmed with eloquence the continuing validity and vitality of the American Dream. In this more than in any policies or decisions lie his legacy and enduring claim to greatness.

GEORGE H. NASH, author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, is currently working on the third volume of his biography of Herbert Hoover.

JAMES NUECHTERLEIN

Ithas been Ronald Reagan's extraordinary political gift to be at once a unifier and a constructive polarizer. Polls have registered his ability to make a substantial majority of Americans feel better about both themselves and their country. At the same time, he is no Eisenhower, bringing people together behind a genial moderation. Genial, yes; moderate, not really at all. During the 1930s, conservatives hissed Franklin Roosevelt at the newsreels while liberals looked on him with something akin to worship. Fifty years later, Reagan has reversed those patterns of appraisal.

Those who question Reagan's conservatism or wonder whether he has made a genuine difference lack a sense of historical perspective. He has accomplished nothing less than a fundamental change in the terms of debate of American politics. The Democrats, it is true, presently show signs of revival-no political mood lasts foreverbut they have achieved recovery only by carefully distancing themselves from the liberalism that is their presumed reason for being. They have been reduced to responding to the president's agenda rather than setting their own.

Startling Accomplishments

Consider Reagan's accomplishments. He has restored the American economy (a president's single most important domestic responsibility) even as he has frustrated the Left's ambition to transform the welfare state into the redistributive state. More generally, he has revitalized faith in private enterprise, the work ethic, political freedom, and the dignity and responsibility of the individual; he has, in short, reestablished a consensus on the basic principles of democratic capitalism that define the American experiment. On all the major social issues-abortion, quotas, gay rights, feminism, crime and punishment, the family, moral and religious values-the Reagan administration has been conservative and correct, even if reasonable people might quarrel over details of policy and political strategy.

In foreign affairs, the record is mixed, but it should not be forgotten that Reagan has kept the peace, rebuilt America's defenses, and exhibited, at least on occasion, a vigorous understanding of the national interest (no imaginable Democratic administration would have undertaken the Grenada operation). He has labeled the USSR for what it has been, an evil empire, at the same time that he has understood the need to establish sober terms of coexistence with it. His essential skepticism toward the Soviets has not blinded him to the possibility that in Mikhail Gorbachev we may be dealing with a genuine departure in Soviet leadership. There have been great blunders (Iran/Contra most notable among them) but many of the administration's perceived failures have had more to do with the intractabilities of international affairs (and the fecklessness of Congress on foreign policy) than with errors in vision or execution.

Triumph of Personality

Reagan'sleadership was, above all, a triumph of personality. His eloquence, charm, courage (recall his behavior after the assassination attempt), and remarkable sense of self revived Americans' pride in the presidential office and, by extension, in the nation itself. No president in memory has displayed so healthy an ego, and Reagan's most adamant political opponents concede his fundamental personal decency.

There was, it must be said, a considerable falling off since 1986. The loss of the Senate and the Iran/Contra fiasco have weakened the president and led to frustrations in both foreign and domestic policy. The administration has failed in Nicaragua (though that was by no means entirely its own doing) and faltered in Panama. The greatest domestic disappointment came in the defeat of the Bork nomination, where the administration stumbled tactically and failed to communicate adequately the essential principle at issue. (Americans must somehow be made to understand the necessity of judicial restraint to the preservation of our constitutional order.)

Still, except for those on the irreconcilable Right who dream of an American equivalent of the Bourbon restoration (dismantlement of the welfare state and reversion of Cold War attitudes to those prevailing circa 1953), Reagan's has been a record that conservatives can look to with no small feeling of approval and satisfaction. To those who grumble that he has not been everywhere successful and has not reconstituted the political economy of Herbert Spencer, one can only say welcome to politics and welcome to America. A great president? Probably not: there has been too much inattentiveness, too little intellectual grasp, some inadequacy of vision. (Reagan's celebrations of individualism too often leave the impression that it is not individualism-in-community to which conservatives should aspire but individualism as an end in itself.) But if not a great president, surely the most significant one since FDR. And perhaps the best-loved of all-which is not, ideologues to the contrary notwithstanding, a thing to be despised.

JAMES NUECHTERLEIN is Professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University in Indiana, where he is also editor of The Cresset, the university's journal of ideas and opinion.

KARL O'LESSKER

The achievement for which President Reagan will be most warmly remembered occurred the first year of his administration. It was the putting into place of fiscal policies, collectively known as "Reaganomics," that have produced the longest peacetime period of sustained economic strength in this century. The cornerstone of this policy was the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which Reagan championed during his 1980 campaign and fought like a tiger to get through Congress the following year. To whatever extent the credit for any successful major policy can be attributed to one man, the credit for ERTA belongs to Ronald Reagan.

Far more important than its present impact on the economy, Reaganomics may well have caused a fundamental shift in the political community's approach to fiscal policy. During the past eight years (and, one suspects, for some years to come) there has been little if any disposition among congressional Democrats to advocate, still less vote for, big new spending or taxation programs.

Apart from partisan bleats about the poor, elderly, homeless, minorities, handicapped (as if these categories of unfortunates were created by Reaganomics), the one dark shadow that falls across the economic record of this administration is the federal deficit. Among economists there is hardly any consensus as to what the long-term consequences will be of the soaring national debt. My own inexpert view is that all those foreigners who are said to be financing our deficit are doing so not out of the goodness of their hearts but because they see this economy-deficit and all-as a splendid opportunity for productive investment. And that worldwide belief among hard-headed investors is more likely to be accurate than the doomsday prophecies of our own pundits.

Unfortunately, I find little else in the record of this administration that posterity is likely to applaud. What started out as a strong-willed, unillusioned policy toward the Soviet Union became in President Reagan's second term a rush toward "give-peace-a-chance" accommodationism.

In a related area, this administration has been given too much credit and far too much blame for the defense buildup. Allowing Mr. Reagan full marks for the large increases in his first two defense budgets, we need to bear in mind that the buildup actually began under President Carter and his excellent Secretary of Defense Harold Brown in the final year of the Carter administration and in the budget he left behind for his successor. The Reagan budgets accelerated the Carter increases but by no means charted a new direction.

The one program of transcendent importance that might stand as a monument to the Reagan presidency is the Strategic Defense Initiative-if it survives Congress. If it does not, however, some portion of blame will have to be assessed against Mr. Reagan himself because of his insistence on portraying the program as an impenetrable space shield using madly exotic weaponry to protect our cities rather than as a quickly deployable defense of our retaliatory forces. This ill-judged emphasis gave rise to the ugly and dishonest anti-Star Wars campaign, which may well prove to be the undoing of SDI.

All told, in my judgment as a conservative Democrat, President Reagan will be remembered more for the opportunities that slipped from his grasp than for achievements that reshaped the American political landscape. I don't at all mean to discount the enormous difficulties Reagan confronted in the form of a largely hostile Congress and virulent news media. A great deal of what he did accomplish against these odds is attributable to his own extraordinary personality, eloquence, and moral commitment. But one can't help wondering how much more he could have achieved had he been a more forceful, involved chief executive. Reagan has indeed been as conservative a president as we could realistically hope to have but not a great one. Greatness requires more than heartfelt good intentions and an occasional success.

KARL O'LESSKER, a member of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, has written many articles on political history for The American Spectator