The Legacy of Ronald Reagan: Caricatures vs. Reality
The Battle of Historical Narratives
The name Ronald Reagan often provokes a strong reaction with Americans. Those who believe that he was one of the greatest presidents of all time claim that he inherited a country in decline and helped to turn it around. Critics argue that he pushed our country into a direction that created some long-term problems that continue to plague us. But whatever one’s political point of view, there is a general consensus that Reagan was a strong conservative who led a shift in our country toward the right. The only question, apparently, is whether or not you think that this political shift was a good thing.
According to the conservative narrative, Ronald Reagan inherited a country suffering from major economic problems. Energy prices were high, inflation in general was out of control, and many people were jobless as a growing number of American businesses struggled to survive in the midst of emerging foreign competition. These economic troubles, however, were only part of the story. Around the world, there was a growing consensus that America was weakening. In 1979, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking almost all of the workers as hostages. During that same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, indicating that they were just as intent on spreading communism as ever. And President Carter, due to his indecisiveness, unwillingness to fund the military properly, and naïve belief that the world could be made safer through negotiations and the promotion of “human rights,” failed to respond with any strong, coherent strategy for dealing with the threats posed by anti-American, Islamic radicals or communists.
Thankfully, Ronald Reagan swept into the White House in 1981 with a clear program to turn around the economy and improve our standing in the world. The economic program, in a nutshell, was aimed at reducing the role of the federal government. High tax rates that stifled business investment and reduced the ability of Americans to consume would be drastically reduced. Excessive business regulations that cut into potential profits, made it difficult for American businesses to compete, and stifled consumer options would be reduced as much as possible. And the growth of the welfare state that had proceeded more or less unabated since the Great Depression would finally face some limits, with an increased number of Americans forced to go out and work instead of collecting “handouts.” Sure, those first couple of years were rough, but by 1983 inflation was finally brought under control, the economy took off, and millions of jobs were created during the remainder of Reagan’s tenure.
With foreign policy, Reagan would also work to take our country back to a time when we did not apologize for building up our military forces and being willing to use them to deal with those who would do us harm. He also made it clear that the age of ‘détente” was over, and the United States would focus once again on defeating the Soviet Union, which Reagan referred to as an “evil empire.” And amazingly, through the President’s military build up and support of “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, which found itself unable to keep up, collapsed shortly after Reagan left office. Without a doubt, most Americans in the late 1980s felt much better about the situation in their country than they had felt eight years earlier.
Liberal critics of Reagan are forced to acknowledge that the economy did improve in many ways under his administration and that the Soviet Union’s collapse was a good thing for the United States. They tend to downplay, however, the role of his policies in these developments. The American economy, after all, has gone through its ups and downs for decades, so Reagan may have simply benefited from good timing, with technological innovation and a collapse in oil prices having more to do with his success than “Reaganomics.” Also, the Soviet economy had been dysfunctional for some time, a dysfunction only made worse by falling oil prices. So at best, Reagan’s policies may have merely hastened the Soviet Union’s inevitable collapse.
Liberal criticism of Reagan, however, goes further than merely downplaying the positive effects of his policies. They also point out some of the negative effects. In spite of his rhetoric, government spending, largely because of his military build up, continued to rise. So with the decreased government revenue resulting from tax cuts, President Reagan began our nation on the path of nearly perpetual large budget deficits. And when government programs were cut, they nearly always hit the most vulnerable people the hardest. These cuts to social programs, along with tax cuts that benefited the rich more than anyone, also started our nation on a path of growing economic inequality. Reduced government regulations began a roll back of efforts to improve the environment and to prevent the kinds of risky financial practices that had threatened the economy so many times in the past. And while many jobs were created during the 1980s, the manufacturing sector in particular began to experience the effects of jobs moving overseas to where the regulations were even lighter. With Republicans continuing to push the Reagan agenda throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the financial collapse of 2008 would prove to be the ultimate result.
In the area of foreign policy, however, you might think that it would be more difficult to find fault with Reagan’s leadership. But a liberal critic can point out plenty of facts that poke holes in the legend of Reagan the tough guy who took on the evildoers. The aid he gave to insurgents in Afghanistan, while possibly playing a role in the Soviet Union’s demise, also sowed the seeds of future terrorist networks that would eventually target the United States. This targeting of Americans, in fact, was already well under way in the 1980s, with a wave of bombings, kidnappings, and hijackings that led to the suffering and death of hundreds of American civilians and soldiers. And in response to some of the worst attacks, such as the bombings that took place in Lebanon, Reagan’s response was weak at best. Ultimately, with the circumstances surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan’s response to terrorism would even be criminal. Just imagine the conservative response today if President Obama was implicated in a scandal to secure the release of hostages with weapons sales to Iran. Then imagine the response when the President asked the American people to be naïve enough to believe that he knew nothing about it.
So which of these narratives bears the closest resemblance to history? Your answer probably depends on your party affiliation. There is a basic problem, however, with these types of ideological historical narratives: they tend to overemphasize the role of the President. Sure, Presidents are powerful people whose policies can have a significant effect on the country. But there are a host of events and developments that can impact the circumstances in our country and world that are outside of the control of any President. This can be particularly true when it comes to foreign policy. In the Middle East, for instance, President Reagan often faced the same choices among bad options that American leaders have been facing for decades. And even when circumstances can be attributed to political policies followed under a particular President’s administration, these were not necessarily the policies that the President wanted to follow. Presidents are merely the head of one of our three branches of government, and all laws must get through both houses of Congress before they reach a President’s desk. So if a President finds himself trying to work with a Congress in which one or both houses are in control of the other political party, then he is not going to get all of the polices that he wants. The only options are gridlock or some form of compromise.
When Ronald Reagan was President, the Senate, for the first time in two decades, had a Republican majority for his first six years. The Democrats, however, held a solid majority in the House of Representatives. Reagan’s prospects for getting anything done seemed even worse than they do for President Obama today. And if you believe in the liberal and conservative caricatures of Reagan, the uncompromising conservative, then prospects for significant action would seem even dimmer. The historical record, however, indicates that major pieces of legislation regarding controversial issues were passed when Reagan was President. So compromises must have been reached, and if this was the case, then who should be held responsible for the results: President Reagan or House Democrats?
When confronted with this type of question, adherents to both the conservative and liberal caricatures of Reagan tend to do two things. First, many people who want to make their narrative fit history will deny the facts that they do not like. So conservatives will deny the fact that Reagan signed an immigration reform bill that provided a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, went along with a few bills that raised some types of taxes, and was eventually willing to negotiate with the Soviet Union in spite of the objections of many conservatives. Liberals, in addition to denying everything I just listed, might forget that while welfare spending on the poor was reduced – by .48% of GDP - while Reagan was in office, spending on Social Security was relatively unchanged, and federal spending on health care as a percentage GDP rose by .44%.
Facts, however, can be annoying things. So if you cannot ignore inconvenient facts, then people wedded to simplistic historical narratives have a second option: give your political party credit for the policies you like and blame the other guy(s) for the ones you don’t. So from a conservative perspective, it may be true that the Reagan administration never came close to balancing a budget, sometimes went along with tax increases, and signed an “amnesty” immigration bill. But they would also point out that tax rates as a whole dropped significantly under Reagan, some budget cuts were implemented, and the immigration bill was supposed to include stricter enforcement of immigration laws. Those damn congressional Democrats, however, failed to live up to their promises, or they forced Reagan into compromises that he otherwise would not have made. Liberal critics of Reagan, on the other hand, can attribute policies that were not all that conservative to House Democrats who were somewhat effective in holding back the “radical” Reagan agenda. Budget deficits that partially resulted from Democratic efforts to block major spending cuts, however, were all somehow Reagan’s fault. The same, of course, can be said for the supposedly excessive military spending, tax cuts for the rich, and damaging reductions in regulations that somehow managed to pass a House of Representatives with a Democratic majority. Like conservatives, liberals only want Reagan to be held responsible for the policies that fit their narrative.
It would have been interesting to see what Reagan would have done domestically if he faced a situation similar to Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s or Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. With their large Congressional majorities, Johnson and Roosevelt were able to more or less push the agenda that they wanted. Reagan, however, did not have such a strong mandate or favorable Congress, so he was forced to make some compromises. And in an age where many Republicans (and some Democrats) see the willingness to compromise as a weakness, I find it interesting that so many Republicans sing the praises of Reagan today. Clearly, this praise is based more on a caricature rooted in mythology than on the actual policies implemented during the Reagan administration. We cannot, after all, judge a President for what he would have done had circumstances been different. We can only judge him on what was actually done. And in many ways, domestic policies under Reagan were not as conservative as advertised. Tax rates as a whole did go down, particularly for the wealthy, with the top tax bracket seeing rates drop from 70% to 28%. But the tax reform bills of the 1980s also raised tax rates slightly for low income people, closed some loopholes, raised capital gains taxes, and sometimes implemented temporary new fees. The meaning of fiscal conservatism, however, changed in the 1980s. Low taxes and minimal government became more important than balanced budgets, and the debt to GDP ratio rose from 33% to 51% over the course of Reagan’s tenure. And despite all of the talk about shrinking government, government spending as a percentage of GDP was only .33% lower when Reagan left office than it was when he came in, and through much of his administration, it was significantly higher than when he started.
In the area of foreign policy, however, it is fairer to hold a President primarily responsible for what is happening. But in this area, Reagan’s record was also mixed. As mentioned earlier, the 1980’s were a time when major terrorist attacks against American interests were common. And while Reagan did at times take some military action against Libya and Iran, at other times he seemed to lack any kind of coherent strategy in the region. And the Iran-Contra Scandal, whether you think Reagan was involved or not, was a travesty. In terms of dealing with the Soviet Union, however, there is more to admire about Reagan. The conservative narrative, as mentioned earlier, attributes the fall of the Soviet Union to Reagan’s toughness. You can make a good case, however, that Reagan the negotiator had as much to do with the fall of the Soviet Union as Reagan the weapons builder. Through his willingness to negotiate with Gorbachev, Reagan freed up the new Soviet Premier to continue pushing his program for reform. If the Soviet leadership and people had been paranoid about that cowboy Reagan who might bomb them someday, it would have been much more difficult for Gorbachev to direct his country through a peaceful process of disintegration. Reagan the peacemaker, however, tends to not fit either the conservative or liberal narratives, which is why this part of his story often gets edited out.
So whatever you might think of Reagan, I would hope that it is an opinion based on historical facts and not rhetoric, legends, or caricatures. In the end, the biggest lesson of the Reagan phenomenon may be how quickly a person can pass from human being to myth. For the people who love him, Reagan is on a plane equal to the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. And when you move into that territory, the man is inevitably drowned out by the myth, with the people who demonize him almost as guilty as the mythmakers. But like many mythologized historical figures, Reagan the man was more pragmatic, complex, and fascinating than any legend could ever be.