Reagan at 90

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 5, 2001

Ronald ReaganRonald Reagan's 90th birthday is a bittersweet occasion for his admirers and friends. It comes upon us at a time when he is effectively withdrawn from the world he did so much to re-shape, having succumbed to the mind-ravaging affects of Alzheimer's disease. Yet at the same time it is now clearer than ever that Reagan was one of the two most significant presidents of the 20th century, with the most important presidential achievements of the past 50 years.

Despite the presence of numerous Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush administration veterans in President George W. Bush's government, it is not the records of these administrations that remain the center of debate during this presidency. The debate over the Reagan legacy has vast implications for the current administration's policies. This is not because President Bush is a throwback to the Reagan years or the era of any previous Republican president, as his critics allege. It is because Reagan's accomplishments are not an academic discussion among historians but the stuff of current affairs.

Look at the items at the center of President Bush's agenda: Across-the-board marginal-income tax rate reduction, a comprehensive missile defense program and educational choice. All of these either came to fruition or made their national policy debut under Reagan. Reagan was the first president to endorse vouchers and enterprise zones for the inner city, decades before compassionate conservatism was coined. Bush recently reinstated Reagan's Mexico City policy that blocked international family planning funds to organizations that perform and promote abortions. Reagan was the first president to vocally chastise liberals for expelling faith from the public square and to assert that their official version of separation of church and state was unconstitutional nonsense. Today Bush makes faith-based initiatives a main priority of his administration. Bush is working to make private savings accounts and investments a part of Social Security; Reagan's support of tax policy changes heralding expanded IRAs and the 401k ushered in what we now call the New Investor Class.

Bill Clinton too at times took Reagan's lead and distanced himself from his McGovern-ite roots. The North American Free Trade Agreement was originally proposed by Reagan and built on his free-trade agreement with Canada. Clinton may persuaded Congress to raise taxes in 1993, but he did not seek to reverse the Reagan rate cuts entirely, leaving the top marginal rate below 40 percent. He similarly eroded but did not completely reverse Reagan's deregulation. Clinton spent his eight years as president touting an economic partnership with Alan Greenspan, appointed to the Federal Reserve chairmanship by Reagan. Welfare reform that focused on giving flexibility to states was also an area where the Reagan legacy touched the Clinton presidency.

What is the cause of the record prosperity we have enjoyed in recent years? Was the primary legacy of "Reaganomics" unprecedented growth or unprecedented budget deficits? Should tax cuts be used to stimulate the economy now and if so, what type? What is the effect of marginal tax rates on federal revenues, and by extension, the general solvency of the federal budget? Is there a link between 1980s growth and the 1990s expansion? What should be done with the "peace dividend" produced by the end of the Cold War? What is America's place in the world following the Cold War? Should the proper role of government be reevaluated? To what extent should the welfare state built by FDR, Truman and succeeding presidents of both parties be rolled back?

These are all questions that dominate our politics today, as they have dominated them for the past decade. These are all questions that can only be asked because of the successes of Ronald Reagan. Reagan changed the debates in public policy in a way unthinkable 20 years ago. Indeed, it could be argued that he played a significant role in restoring debate that had been stifled by the generations-long New Deal consensus.

Those who mock Reagan as an "amiable dunce" and take cruel satisfaction from his memory lapses are the ones who need to be reminded: It was Reagan who revitalized the United States' free enterprise system, refuted the notion that progress was equivalent to the endless growth of government, reintroduced the ordinary American citizen as the true engine of advancement, won the Cold War and contributed to the freedom of millions around the globe.

Yes, the Gipper bears more responsibility than any other politician for the more than 45 million new jobs, $3 trillion in added output and $30 trillion in increased net worth since 1982. His policies laid the groundwork for an economy that grew 97 percent of the time rather than contracting one-third of the time. As measured by Purchasing Parity Indexes, Americans enjoyed the world's highest living standards. Per capita incomes increased by nearly 20 percent. Contrary to the myths that the rich got richer and the poor poorer, there was upward class mobility on a massive scale and minorities have been unprecedented beneficiaries of this prosperity. We have seen the stock market explode, tripling in the 1980s and quadrupling in the 1990s.

Old Dutch hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union and defeated communism in a world that once had hoped for nothing better than détente. The rebuilt US military that played a central role in accomplishing this feat would go onto to defeat the world's fifth-largest army in 100 days of fighting with only 124 combat-related casualties in the Persian Gulf War. The United States is today the world's only superpower and millions who were once in chains breathe free. Countless others who have not yet made this transition have the opportunity to do so.

What of the enormous "cost" at which all this occurred? The deficits and national debt with which Reagan supposedly bankrupted the nation? Today, the communist tyrants that once threatened American security and Western liberty are still gone but the deficits have been erased. No less a liberal commentator than Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect has predicted that we will experience $5.6 trillion in surpluses over the next ten years even adjusting for a moderate recession. These deficits were turned into surpluses without completely repealing the Reagan tax cuts and returning to a top marginal rate of 70 percent and 14 tax brackets. They were finally reversed, much in the Reagan-ite way, by annual economic growth rates as high as 4 percent - the same as the growth rate that prevailed from 1983 to 1989.

To those who refuse to give Reagan's policies any credit for growth in the 1990s and who call the expansion of the 1980s a binge that ended with the 1990-91 hangover, we must ask whether they will make that same claim about Clinton. They touted the growth we enjoyed during Clinton's presidency (which was generally not as robust as the Reagan boom) but will likely not refer to the coming slowdown as a hangover- nor will they give the Reagan-like Bush tax cuts credit when they revive the flagging economy.

Even today's Republican Party is the house that Reagan (and Richard Nixon) built. The Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, held it in subsequent elections and then narrowly won the Electoral College in 2000 with the votes of the Reagan coalition: Church-going and evangelical voters, married couples, white Southerners, men, entrepreneurs, gun owners, rural and small-town voters and the minority of conservative minorities. The Democrats win their votes from what's left of the New Deal coalition, with the swing vote being very similar to what we once called Reagan Democrats.

Reagan had his share of failures and imperfections. There seems to be a temptation to elevate important historical figures of the 20th century, including Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, into gods. Reagan, as well understood, was not a god. He was a decent, naturally patriotic man who accomplished great things because he believed great ideas and had faith in his God. He saw his country as a shining city on a hill and even his opponents saw themselves as a part of that vision.

As Reagan himself might say looking back on 90 years, all in all not bad. Not bad at all.

W. James Antle III is a former researcher for the Rhema Group, an Ohio-based political consulting firm. You can e-mail comments to wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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