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June 7, 2004

The Age of Reagan

By

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 managed efficiently.

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 world.

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 expansion.

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 communism.

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 malaise.

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 Remade America."

First appeared in The Washington Times

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