June 3, 2005

June 3, 2005 | Commentary on

The Reagan Legacy

It's been one year since the death of Ronald Reagan, whose standing as a president grows steadily. He is now ranked as a "great" or "near-great" president in most public polls, although the reaction among political historians and commentators remains somewhat mixed -- perhaps because first judgments are not easily set aside. The number of experts who in 1980 dismissed Reagan as too old, too dumb and too conservative to be president is legion.

Some remain skeptical. Anthony S. Campagna, a professor of economics at the University of Vermont, says flatly that Reaganomics failed, leaving "many more serious problems to solve" than if this "unwarranted and deceptive program had not been adapted." Professor Coral Bell of the Australian National University characterizes Reagan's foreign policy as simplistic and "Rambo-like" and concludes that many of his policies were really "smoke and mirrors."

On Reagan's passing, ABC's Peter Jennings remarked that "a great many people" thought he made the wealthy wealthier and did not "improve life particularly for the middle class." "I don't think," CBS's Morley Safer said, "history has any reason to be kind to him."

One is tempted to ask which distant planet these analysts lived on during the 1980s, but instead let's examine President Reagan's record as (1) CEO of the economy, (2) commander-in-chief of our armed forces, and (3) national leader. How successful was he in each of these vital roles?

CEO: At the core of Reaganomics -- what President Reagan preferred to call common sense -- was lower taxes so that people could spend or save more of what they earned. The Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 cut all income tax rates by 25 percent and indexed tax rates to offset the impact of inflation. Newsweek correctly called the measure a "second New Deal potentially as profound in its import as the first was a half century ago."

Economic growth over the next 92 months (through 1990) was the longest uninterrupted economic expansion in peacetime in the 20th century. By the end of 1987, America was producing about seven and one-half times more every year than in John Kennedy's last year as president. Some 17 million new jobs were created from 1981 to 1989. Stock market averages more than doubled.

Commander-in-Chief: President Reagan determined that the time had come to defeat communism, not simply contain it. Accordingly, he nearly doubled defense spending during his eight years in office. He also inaugurated the Reagan Doctrine, under which the United States assisted pro-freedom, anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Cambodia. As a result, the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, a democratic government was elected in Nicaragua, and 40,000 Cuban troops were removed from Angola.

At the same time, the Reagan administration pursued a sophisticated multi-faceted foreign policy offensive that included covert and other support to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, a psychological operation to engender indecision and anxiety among Soviet leaders along with an expanded public diplomacy program, a global campaign to reduce Soviet access to Western high technology, and a drive to hurt the Soviet economy by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas exports to the West.

And then there was the missile-defense program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). More than any other strategic action, Reagan's unwavering commitment to SDI convinced the Kremlin it couldn't afford, let alone win, an arms race and obliged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to agree to end the Cold War peacefully. As Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, Gorbachev "had no choice but to disarm."

National Leader: President Reagan lifted a traumatized country out of a great psychological depression induced by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and sustained by the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the Carter malaise. He persuaded the American people to believe in themselves and the future again. He called them the "keepers of a miracle" -- the American experiment in freedom.

There were disappointments, such as leaving behind a huge federal deficit, and mistakes (e.g., Iran-contra and the 1982 tax increase). But in his farewell address, Reagan told the men and women of the "Reagan revolution" that they had made a difference -- they had made America stronger, freer and had left her in good hands. "All in all," he concluded, "not bad, not bad at all."

In fact, very few presidents in history can claim so imposing and lasting a record in every critical political realm as this remarkable president.

Lee Edwards, Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including the just-published " To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."

About the Author

Lee Edwards, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics

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