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Ronald Reagan: Communicator of great things
By W. James Antle III
If you have ever enjoyed anything you have read under this byline, you have Ronald Reagan to thank. It was his example that interested me in politics and showed me that it could be about conviction rather than just winning elections. Given my current line of work, the title of Peter Robinson's book How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life certainly resonates.
But Reagan deserves credit for far less trivial changes. His leadership and commitment to his ideals in the face of unbending elite ridicule literally altered the course of a nation and the world.
This may sound like partisan hyperbole until you pause to consider how much things have changed since 1980. The United States was experiencing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – high unemployment, slow or negative economic growth, record inflation and double-digit interest rates. For a decade, the government had thrashed around helplessly trying to solve these problems, relying on price controls and other increasingly socialistic methods to no avail.
The conventional wisdom was that Americans were going to have to get used to the idea of not living as well as their parents did and learn to live within their means. Some economists believed that high inflation would be a permanent fixture of our national life. The talk was about how we needed to realign our expectations with these realities.
The Soviet Union was then appeared ascendant throughout the world. As with the economy, the prevailing wisdom was that learning to manage American decline as well as possible and live with Soviet expansionism was the best we could do.
Politically, the U.S. was regarded as ungovernable. Younger generations were losing faith in the American creed. After a string of failed presidents from both parties, there was talk that the presidency was too big for one person. Some counseled that our institutions of government be reformed along the lines of corporate models.
In each of these cases, the conventional wisdom proved as thoroughly wrong as these problems are now thoroughly forgotten. Reagan left office after two terms with record favorability ratings. Stagflation was replaced with an unprecedented peacetime economic expansion with relatively low inflation. Within a couple years, the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union was no more. All of the things people said could not be done were done; the terrible consequences of Reagan's policies critics predicted – war, depression, even worse inflation – failed to materialize.
Domestically, the political climate and the tools of public policy were changed. In 1981, there were 14 income tax brackets with a top rate of 70 percent. By 1989, there were just two with a top rate of 28 percent. The highest rate has never exceeded 39.6 percent since. Wage and price controls were replaced with continued deregulation. So far only one Democrat, Bill Clinton, has succeeded Reagan, and his record contains policies with a Reaganite pedigree: welfare reform and a capital-gains tax cut.
Internationally, millions of people who lived in the shackles of communism became free. Free markets and free elections came to the formerly captive nations of Eastern Europe. The world no longer lives with two superpowers aiming the most deadly weapons ever devised at one another under the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.
Reagan combined an indomitable spirit with a firm belief in this Republic's founding principles. He understood the evil of communism, the importance of hard work and faith in God, the power of markets and individual freedom, the proper limits of government.
The credit was not always the Gipper's alone. His major tax reform package was passed with the help not only of conservative Democrats, but liberal Republicans like Bob Packwood and core center-left Democrats like Richard Gephardt, Bill Bradley and Dan Rostenkowski. Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl and Brian Mulroney all were world leaders with key roles in hastening the end of the Cold War. Alan Greenspan and especially Paul Volcker contributed to the 1980s economic recovery and relative price stability afterward.
It's also true that Reagan made his share of mistakes, from the personal to the political. There are numerous examples where he failed to live up to his rhetoric of limited government. His administration experienced many scandals that might have been avoided or more quickly rectified had he been a more attentive manager.
Perfection, however, is not the standard by which history will judge Reagan. Of the many things Alzheimer's disease cruelly took from him in his final years, one was the ability to watch the appreciation of his administration's success grow from a right-wing minority viewpoint when he left office to a wide consensus by the time he died. Many of the people who jeered at him from the sidelines during his eight years in office today may be found acknowledging that he reinvigorated American patriotism and played a key role in winning the Cold War. There is bitter Reagan-hating going on, but mainly from the left's fever swamps, not its mainstream.
Just as many of Reagan's former critics have learned from his legacy, there remain lessons for his admirers and would-be successors. Before the 1980s, it was considered axiomatic that progress inevitably marched leftward. Standing athwart history and yelling stop was okay for quixotic right-wing magazines, but not anyone engaged in practical politics. Reagan proved both that progress did not always mean moving to the left and also that the left's political gains could be challenged and even reversed.
On the positive side, the conservative movement – and to a lesser extent, the Republican Party – have been shaped by the Reagan message of economic growth through lower taxes, family values and peace through strength. But the downside is that the right often simply tries to re-fight the 1980 presidential election, without realizing that Reagan offered sensible conservative solutions to the gravest challenges of his time. A worthy successor will not simply serve warmed over portions of the Reagan agenda, however valuable that agenda may still be; he will apply principled solutions to the most serious problems of our times.
The 40th president's legacy also needs to be safeguarded from opportunists across the political spectrum. A cottage industry has sprung up on the right aimed at hawking products, creating myriad monuments and otherwise stamping the Gipper's name on things in a manner in consistent with Reagan's humility, dignity and self-deprecating humor; he rejected the idea he was a Great Communicator in favor of the proposition that he communicated great things. A movement has also developed, benefiting from free advertising in many of the obituaries, to use Reagan's suffering from Alzheimer's to support policies that contradict his deep-seated respect for the sanctity of human life. Both should be resisted.
Because of the man and the leader Ronald Reagan was, so much was changed for the better. Even as we mourn his passing, let us rejoice in his achievements and feel relief that his decade of suffering is over. And remember that the values he sought to preserve for citizens of this shining city on a hill are timeless.
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