June 7, 2004
By Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
On the two epic events of the last 50 years -
the waging of the Cold War and the growth of the welfare state -
Ronald Reagan was indisputably correct. Communism was evil and had
to be defeated, not merely contained. And the welfare state had
grown dangerously large and had to be rolled back, not simply
The American public agreed emphatically with his judgments and
with his prescriptions, and they elected him president twice - the
second time by a landslide - and would have given him a third term
in 1988 but for the 22nd Amendment.
The Washington Post acknowledged that 1980 was no ordinary
election: "Nothing of that size and force and sweep could have been
created over a weekend or even a week or two by the assorted
mullahs and miseries of our time." Ronald Reagan came to the
presidency with an express mandate from the people to cut income
taxes from top to bottom, reduce the size of the federal
government, and make the U.S. military number one in the
His most decisive domestic action was the Economic Recovery Tax
Act of 1981, which Newsweek rightly called a "second New Deal
potentially as profound in its import as the first was a
half-century ago." The 25 percent across-the-board tax cut, plus
the indexing of tax rates, produced a historic economic
Reagan also challenged directly the welfare philosophy that had
dominated Washington since the New Deal. Entitlements, he insisted,
should be replaced by "benefits contingent on responsible
behavior." He had first developed this new principle of American
social policy as governor of California, and it would undergird the
extensive welfare reforms of the 1990s.
When Ronald Reagan took office in January 1980, the United States
and its allies had been laboring for 35 years to contain communism
with a wide range of military and economic initiatives that had
cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of
dollars. But for the new president, containment was not working or
at least not working fast enough. The time had come to defeat
He went on the offensive, telling members of the British
Parliament in June 1982 that "the march of freedom and democracy .
. . will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history." And he
quickened that march with a strategy that shifted the superpower
struggle to the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union itself.
He initiated what came to be called the Reagan Doctrine - a policy
of proxy warfare in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Cambodia. It
was the most cost-effective of all the Cold War doctrines, costing
the United States only about half a billion dollars a year but
forcing the cash-strapped Soviets to spend several times that
amount to deflect its impact.
And then there was the most important security policy of all - the
Strategic Defense Initiative. Derided by liberal critics as "Star
Wars," SDI convinced the Kremlin it could not win, or afford, a
continuing arms race, and it forced Mikhail Gorbachev to sue for
peace and end the Cold War.
Biographer Lou Cannon concluded that "no president save FDR
defined a decade as strikingly as Ronald Reagan defined the 1980s."
And not just in the areas of policy and politics. Just as FDR led
America out of a great economic depression, Reagan lifted the
country out of a great psychological depression, induced by the
assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and
sustained by the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Carter
Reagan used the same political instruments as Roosevelt - the
major address to Congress and the fireside chat with the people -
and the same optimistic, uplifting rhetoric. But although both
Roosevelt and Reagan appealed to the best in America, Roosevelt
always turned first to government to solve problems, while Reagan
turned first to the people. He persuaded Americans to believe again
in themselves and the future.
Reagan left an indelible mark on American politics, starting in
the mid-1960s when he was governor of California, blossoming
through the eight years of his presidency, and continuing to this
day. Politicians from both political parties have acknowledged
their profound debt to Ronald Reagan.
Even as historians generally describe the first half of the 20th
century as the Age of Roosevelt, the last half is destined to be
called the Age of Reagan.
Lee Edwards, a
senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of several
books, including "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that
First appeared in The Washington Times
The Age of Reagan
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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