This Sunday would have been Ronald Reagan's 100 birthday. The press will be full of stories and coverage of this. Most will be reverent and celebratory of the man, his life and his presidency. This is a surprising turn, since he was condemned and belittled on a daily basis while serving as our 40th president.
I was still a teenager during Reagan's presidency, so some may say I was too young too know what I am talking about. But I remember all to well how he was thought of at the time. He was a heartless, evil, senile old racist who was too stupid to understand diplomacy, too stubborn to change and too air-headed to run the country. The press' treatment of him was eerily similar to that of George W. Bush.
This is a bit from Saturday Night Live during the Iran-Contra affair (notably not a high point). It shows that the perceived notion of Reagan in the press and the White House's use of that image to disguise the "truth". And it's really funny.
Following my post, Reagan/Obama 1984, I received comments that today's GOP is too far right of Reagan. But that couldn't be more wrong. Let's try taking a look at the big picture. During the Great Depression, the country began a lurch to the left. Reagan, who was once a Roosevelt Democrat, was famous for declaring, "I didn't leave the Democratic party. The party left me". Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon were a fixture in that leftward tilt. President Kennedy's tax plan was more conservative than anything Nixon did in office.
When Reagan took office, the country had been swaying leftward for far too long. Following the tax revolts of the late 70's and with the nation in recession, he understood that righting the economy needed to be his first action. He rammed his tax plan through Congress without any compromises. He worked with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to bring inflation down. He ended price controls on oil and the price of oil fell. At the end of Carter's presidency inflation was 12.5% and unemployment was 7.5% while at the end of Reagan's inflation was 4.4% and unemployment was 5.5%. Under Reagan, federal revenues rose significantly and Nobel prize economist Milton Friedman argued that these tax policies invigorated America's economy and led to the boom of the 80's and 90's. Reagan's stance on defense was "Peace through Strength" or as he would say, "firm but fair". This resulted in a defense build up of 40% from 1981-1985. Much of the debt can be attributed to this along with the increasing outlays to entitlements as the population continued to age.
It's not hard to argue that his presidency was a success for America. More popular than ever, the Liberal Establishment are fearful to speak openly of the man as they really see him. But for them to properly give him his due, would be to give the conservative movement credibility. Instead, his conservatism has been washed away and he has been painted as a centrist. Thus Reagan's legacy has been restored in the eyes of the press. This new picture of the man is now being used as a club to bludgeon the current Republicans and the Tea Party.
Just as the Tea Party decries spending, Reagan moved to cut the budgets of Medicaid, food stamps, education and the EPA. The current Republican's push to move spending back to the levels of 2008 seems mild when you realize that President Obama has increased discretionary spending by 84% (when you include the stimulus passed in 2009). Reagan was speaking for today's so called "Far" Right when he said,
At the moment there appears to be a panic fear afloat in the air, partly due to a feeling that government is now a separate force beyond the people’s control, that their voices echo unheeded in the vast and multitudinous halls of government. I do not remember a time when so many Americans, regardless of their economic and social standing, have been so suspicious and apprehensive of the aims, the credibility, and the competence of the Federal establishment.
In the backrooms of the Capitol, Reagan pushed for a more conservative approach to the judiciary and the "originalist" comeback on the bench today is because of this. On Foreign policy he had this to say, "The fetish of complexity... rationalizing the non- decision, has made a ruin of American foreign policy." He didn't believe in a subtle approach or broad generalities, but felt America should lead decisively. He governed during a time when Communism was nearing our southern border through Central America, still held eastern Europe and most of Asia. Each day he was president, ICBMs sat waiting for the wrong word to be said or move to be made, yet he never blinked when dealing with our enemies. When our marine barracks were bombed in Beirut, he assessed the situation, decided we didn't need to be there and pulled them out. Yet he made the decision to invade Grenada. He worked with the Soviets, but on his terms. His Strategic Defense Initiative threatened to push them away from the bargaining table over nuclear arms reductions, but played a large part in the fall of the Soviet Empire.
In today's 24/7 news environment, where the very minutia of Washington is on display, it can seem that our politicians are more extreme than ever before. In the days of three networks, the news came into our homes during one hour each evening. The president and the speaker of the house dominated the coverage. There was no time for the endless soundbites from the many Congressman like we have today. As we hear more, we know more of where other representatives stand on the issues. But when the press covered a Reagan speech, it was often in an apolitical setting, much like President Obama's Tuscson speech.
In 1981 Reagan took office stating, "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem." He was speaking to the American people, but throughout his presidency he was also speaking to the millions held under the thumb of communism throughout the world. He saw the failure that was to come from their planned economies and felt it was our place to urge it forward. Known for his sense of humor, he often told anti-Soviet and anti-communism jokes. Anthony Dolan at Real Clear Politics writes,
When Reagan told his anti-Soviet stories and then predicted the USSR's collapse at the height of Soviet power and expansion, he drew guffaws from those who now invoke his name. But while turning 100 would have amused Reagan, I suspect he would chuckle too at seeing his old adversaries -- the Keynesians and socialists -- getting one last chance to prove that "If the government took over the Sahara nothing would happen for three years and then there would be a shortage of sand.
His "trickle-down" economics though widely disparaged as heartless, helped right our country back to the individual. He saw America like the cowboy he was; a place where each person was free to set his own course and make of himself whatever he wanted. Our success depended on ourselves. Steven Hayward wrote at National Review:
Reagan’s invocation of Paine, as well as his quotation of John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon, expresses the core of his optimism and belief in the dynamism of American society, a dynamism that can have unconservative effects. But he explained his use of Paine in conservative terms way back in his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me? “The classic liberal,” Reagan wrote, “used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a longtime refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’”
That the Tea Party and the Republicans have rediscovered the founders, would not have bothered Ronald Reagan. That they live by the words of the most liberal of the founders; this bothers the Liberal Establishment.