April 24, 2024

LeadershipLimited Government

Reagan Redux: Part II

By: Rodney Rios

During Reagan’s presidency, the excess of bureaucracy was curtailed, and the growth of government with never-ending new programs and agencies stopped (albeit it did not shrink as much as Reagan would have wanted). Pollution was severely tackled, and tough-on-crime policies were enacted. As the Reagan Foundation has noted “The effect of the President’s work to prevent crime and put criminals where they belonged was dramatic. Nearly 2 million fewer households were hit by crime in 1987 than in 1980.”

Additionally, the conservative legal counterrevolution and the slow takeover of Originalists of the judicial system began during the Reagan era. In other words, the Reagan Revolution began a slow and imperfect process, culminating in a relatively conservative Supreme Court. In economic terms, as has been abundantly documented, “The combination of tax cuts and deregulation was a catalyst for economic growth and job creation. Several industries experienced expansion, including finance, technology, and manufacturing. During this expansion, business had more capital and flexibility, which led to job creation.” The inflation rate dropped from 13.5% in 1980 to 4.1% by 1988; unemployment fell from 7.6% to 5.5%; and, lastly, the Reagan tax cuts saved the median-income two-earner American family of four close to $9,000 in taxes from what it would have owed in 1980. In other words, Reagan successfully ended the worst economic recession since the Great Depression to that time.

On cultural issues, Reagan limited abortion as much as possible launched a strong anti-drug campaign and moved the country’s views and temperament rightward. As such, the explosion of economic growth, the military buildup, and Granada’s liberation, along with a new sense of optimism and legislative accomplishments, led to a renewed patriotism and fervor that America has only rarely seen since.

In the foreign policy sphere, Inboden explains: “Reagan’s Cold War strategy entailed pressuring the Soviet system on every front- military, economic, ideological, diplomatic not only to exploit its weaknesses, but to produce a reformist leader. A leader whom Reagan could negotiate with and partner with to end Soviet imperialism and the Cold War.” Reagan’s end game was peace through strength and respect for America; as Inboden summarizes, “Reagan sought to bring the Kremlin to a negotiated surrender.” Reagan’s dream was an improved world order, guided by human rights and freedom, liberated from the shadow of nuclear war. A noble dream, one would think.

As such, Reagan’s view of America was that it was a nation that was strong domestically and respected internationally. A nation that, by its power, goodness, and decency, would lead the free world and keep the peace. Reagan’s grand strategy can has been summarized as restoring the American economy as a foundation of national strength and morale, delegitimizing communism, rebuilding America’s military, supporting anticommunist insurgencies around the world, making mutual assured destruction (MAD) obsolete through the Strategic Defense Initiative; promoting human rights and freedom across the globe; pressuring the Soviet system into producing a reformist leader with whom Reagan could negotiate—lastly, reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

Ronald Reagan succeeded in all those objectives, which were his mandate at the time of the election. In the President’s words, “We made the city stronger; we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all.” If we listen to the people who were there, we will realize how strong the consensus is that without American leadership and Ronald Reagan, things would have happened entirely differently. As Inboden explained of the end of the Reagan presidency,

“As he prepared to leave office, Reagan’s approval ratings stood at 63 percent in the Gallup poll and 68 percent in the New York Times/CBS poll. Eighty-one percent of Americans approved of his handling of US-Soviet relations in particular. He would end his presidency enjoying the highest regard of any president since Franklin Roosevelt. It is perhaps no coincidence that Roosevelt was the other twentieth-century President to lead the nation to victory over a totalitarian foe–though for both Roosevelt and Reagan, it would fall to their successors to see the conflict through to its end.”

In conclusion, it is not to say that Ronald Reagan was a perfect president. Not at all; he admitted, for example, a mistake in the operation in Lebanon. One could add the national debt (though beating the USSR and rebuilding America’s strength was worth it), amnesty to illegal immigrants, and Iran-Contra. Nonetheless, his positive achievements and legacy vastly outweigh his few failures. Reagan’s lasting achievements can be summarized: 1) The creation of a durable, conservative political consensus that made all actors in American politics move, at least rhetorically, rightward from 1980 to 2008. This is the absolute test of a conservative statesman, and Reagan achieved it. Sure, his consensus broke slowly and degraded significantly at the hands of his successors because of the Great Recession. But it lasted. America and the Free World tilted to the Right for decades after his presidency, and debates were held over the terms Reagan established. As Margaret Thatcher remarked, “The trouble is that we converted our opponents.” Did the Triangulation of Clinton and Blair, socially liberal but economically conservative, prove a positive to the world? That is another topic, but at least the debate shifted, and liberalism and progressivism were confined to the margins for a time. 2) Reagan’s policies restored American self-confidence and patriotism and an explosion of economic growth, progress, and innovation that lasted for years. 3) Reagan won the Cold War and defeated communism. Thereby creating the unipolar moment of American hegemony. This included a massive expansion of democracy and free markets and ceasing wars and conflicts worldwide. As Colin Powell told the President on his final day in office, “The world is quiet today, Mr. President.”

The best summary of Reagan’s legacy as a statesman is what Dan McLaughlin once wrote, “Ronald Reagan’s monument is a wall that isn’t there anymore.” One cannot quantify tragedies avoided, lives saved, freedom preserved. As such we cannot know how much good an improved quality of life and the liberation of Eastern Europe are worth. But Reagan’s legacy holds till this day. In short, it’s not a bad legacy. Not bad at all.