In memory of a great man, I post this that I wrote last September in response to a question from Ben Randell.
Ronald Reagan is one of the most polarizing and complex figures in American history. He seems to be one of those either you love him or hate him folks.
I guess I hope that people will begin to acknowledge him (as some historians have) as being great in the sense that even FDR is, though FDR was very polarizing and complex. Both made dramatic changes to the American political system. Both were extremely popular. Both had a vision that they communicated clearly and people supported.
Following the late 60s and the 70s America was in decline (as was much of Western Europe too). We were in decline economically after years of recessions and skyrocketing inflation and the energy crises, etc. We were in decline in global influence. Communism seemed to be winning the Cold War. We had had a standstill in Korea, defeat in Vietnam and Cuba. Communism had spread to Nicauragua, Angola, Afghanistan, etc. We were outnumbered with China and the USSR both being communist great powers. The Ayatollah had just ousted a US ally in Iran and was holding American hostages. And, maybe most importantly, we were in decline in spirit. We had become pessimistic and cynical. We had fought each other during the great domestic battles of the previous decades -- civil rights, women's rights, war protests, etc. This was even reflected in religion with the rise of fundamentalism as a way to cope with this strange world that seemed to be against us on every hand.
Enter Ronald Reagan. Reagan was optimistic. He said that our greatest days were ahead of us, that they hadn't passed in the glorious post-WWII days. He spoke of a vision for the future when we would be a "shining city on a hill." This clear allusion to OT and NT prophets speaks of a city that all nations stream to because it is a place of peace and prosperity. Ronald Reagan spoke of peace, which people forget. He dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons, where we would elminate these in successive agreements with the Soviet Union. He spoke of a world where democracy and self-determination were the grand principles, where communism would be on the dust heap of history. He spoke of economic well-being and prosperity.
And this is what Ronald Reagan set out to do. He was not just a visionary, he had actual plans to make this happen, and those plans were often realistic. How to get the Soviets to negotiate on arms control? Bankrupt them. We would increase defense spending faster then they could. The Soviets would then come to the table to negotiate and we would eventually all cut back our weapons spending and eliminate the need for our weapons of mass destruction (people seem to have forgotten what the goals of some of these policies were).
How to spur the economy? Tax cuts were the answer in 1980. The highest tax bracket was still somewhere around 50%. American business had not been growing and developing and investing in new ideas. It had fallen behind the Japanese and others. Historical evidence showed that the economy could be spurred by cutting taxes. John Kennedy had created a period of economic growth in the 60s by proposing what had been, until 1981, the largest tax cut in American history.
Where Reagan was naive was that he thought he could balance the budget (something he ran on in 1980 because of the skyrocketing budgets of the previous 12 years -- we had not balanced the budget since 1968). I think he knew that shortterm the tax cuts would not balance the budget, especially with the increase in defense spending. That he was somewhat aware that the increase in defense spending required a steady hand is indicated by his choice of Casper Weinberger to be Secy. of Defense. Weinberger's previous time in government had been as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Ford administration, where he had been a strong advocated of balanced budget and restrained government spending.
The major problem for the Reagan Revolution, however, came in the form of increased domestic spending. The budget could only be held in check if domestic spending were decreased (more on this vision in a moment). But he was never able to make this happen. Congress had large Democrat majorities. In order to get his 1981 budget passed, he had to win the support of a large number of Democrats. The Democrats who did vote for the 1981 Budget were, by and large, more conservative Democrats. But, their support came with a price. Almost to a man and woman, each placed their pet spending projects in the bill. Domestic spending went up in 1981. And so the 1981 Budget was catasrophic on a fiscal level. Reagan, for years afterward, demanded that budgets be brought back in line, but he never had a willing Congress. Basically, in the 1980s we had our cake and ate it also. The Republicans got increased defense spending and tax cuts and the Democrats got their increased spending. Both parties are guilty for not compromising. One of the heroes of this period, though, is Bob Dole whose 1983 Budget deal was one of the few pieces of compromise legislation that saved us from even larger deficits and made Social Security solvent or it would have been bankrupt by now.
Why did Reagan want to cut domestic spending? It was his conviction that government had become too bloated -- that the programs of the New Deal (he had been a supporter) and the Great Society had gotten out of hand. The federal government was handling a larger share of the gross domestic product than many economist felt was good longterm. More money needed to be in the hands of private enterprise, individual consumers, and the states and cities. I truly do think that Reagan's vision was that we would have some rough years as we readjusted the economy but that in the long run once the fiscal house was back in order and prosperity had been achieved, that then we would be able to address some of our social needs, but not necessarily in the big government programs of the past. Reagan's vision was almost identical to Margaret Thatcher's. She had the advantage of a parliamentary system where she came from the legislature. So, her revolution was complete -- her total reshaping of the British economic system was achieved, whereas Reagan could never get his complete vision through Congress (like Roosevelt or Johnson had been able to do).
And each revolution (Thatcher and Reagan) was followed by a period of economic hardship. People lost jobs. There were recessions. But each of these revolutions was intended for a longterm vision. What happened longterm then? The 1980s and 1990s were the longest periods of economic growth in the histories of either two nations. Both eventually became places of great entrepeneurism. Both ended the 90s with low unemployment rates. And America had achieved budget surpluses about a decade before projections. All this despite the fact that both countries had elected leaders of the opposite party. But, the interesting fact about both Blair and Clinton is that neither repudiated the fundamental economic principles of Thatcher or Reagan. Blair ran saying that he would not roll back the economic policies of Thatcher, but would seek to use the nations new prosperity to begin to address social issues. Clinton was basically the same. He came from the Democractic Leadership Conference, a group that formed in the 80s with the goal of wresting control of the Democratic Party from its economically liberal leadership that had nominated Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis.
How to restore American global influence and bring about a world full of peaceful democracies? (note that these weren't two different things) Show a powerful and forceful leadership. Call the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" when it is controversial to do so. Stand at the Berlin Wall and say "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" With measured use (in Libya and Granada, the only military actions of his presidency, far less than the three successive administrations and basically, along with Carter, the least militaristic periods in American military use in the entire 20th century) illustrate American military power. And work to fund anti-communist forces (admittedly, some awful mistakes were made here, though I think that much of this can be blamed directly on subordinates, but Reagan is guilty as the person on whom responsibility finally lands). The outcome? Communism was ascendant in 1980. It had collapsed by 1989. The Soviet Union ceased to exist as a state in 1991. Though Reagan was not solely responsible (Thatcher, John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Woijech Jaruzelski, Andrei Sakharov, Mikhail Gorbachev, and others play hugely important roles in this world-historical series of events), he is viewed by many as the primary figure in ending the Cold War that had lasted for over 50 years, taking numerous lives and resources. His vision of a future peace was one HUGE step closer.
How to restore spirit? By achieving these other things. By exhibiting positive leadership. By great rhetorical skills. By elegance. By stagemanship. Did this succeed? In 1984 he was elected by the largest landslide in American history and his successor won in a huge landslide in 1988. In the 1990s America entered into an era of positive social change and can-do-ism that did not exist in the 1970s. Volunteerism has increased. Philanthropy has increased. In fact, the very shock that 9/11 was to the system is evidence of Reagan's success. If that attack had come in 1980 it would have been tragic and a shock, but much less of a shock to a country who had seen such a beating the previous 15 - 20 years.
Let me say one thing about this current President. He is not Reagan. He misunderstands Reagan on a fundamental level.
1) Reagan increased military spending in order to lead to a future where military spending could be cut because it would not be needed. This does not seem to be Bush's motive.
2) Reagan cut taxes because we had been in a state of economic decline, the tax burden was very high, and there need to be spur to entrepeneurism. Bush cut taxes after an economic boom, with an already light tax burden, and after a period of the greatest entrepeneurism in our history.
3) Reagan want to streamline government and the economy to bring about prosperity and to balance the budget. Bush has increased the size and spending of government more than any president since FDR. He took a budget that was already in balance and threw it back into deficits, record deficits. Unlike Reagan who fought to stop the deficits of his term and had an unwilling Congress. Bush unapologetically increases the deficit, doesn't seem to view it as a problem, and yet he has a Republican Congress. Bush also took the surpluses and prosperity that were the outcome of the Reagan Revolution (the 20 year experiment had finally paid off) and betrayed it with his demagogery and lack of vision for the future (one of Reagan's key virtues being his look ahead). Instead of using the surpluses to first pay down the debt, create a rainy day fund, and address social needs, he wasted it.
4) Bush misunderstands the use of military power. Reagan's policies were to get the Soviets to the table to negotiate. He made measured use of the military. Reagan new the power of words and relationships. I think the world feared and respected Reagan because of his strength on this issue. They do not respect Bush and do not fear him in the same way.
5) Bush does not give us a vision of a greater tomorrow. He does not make us feel that our best days are ahead. Instead, it feels as if our best days were in 1999 and that we are on the decline. He tries to scare us with threat levels and misuses religious rhetoric not to bring hope and optimism by to rally us in some jingoistic crusade that is a sorry replacement for Reagan's vision and optimism and that also betrays the outpouring of community spirit and national pride in September 2001.
Immediately after 9/11, Bush sounded something like Reagan. But then he revealed how much less of a man he is. He did not push us to use the opportunity to create a golden age of community spirit with the aim of creating a better country and a more peaceful world. This Ronald Reagan would have done.