It took only 22 years after he left the White House for conservatives to turn Ronald Reagan into a totem. The celebrations surrounding his 100th birthday on February 6 made George Washington look like a back-bench legislator. Conservatives hailed Reagan as the apotheosis of political wisdom and prudent action. Liberals conceded that he had done a couple good things, and indeed was a lot like the current occupant of the Oval Office in his charm. President Obama let it be known that he was reading a biography of Reagan. Obama even called himself “the Gipper,” the well-known moniker for Reagan.
What was lacking was perspective on Reagan’s eight years in the White House.
Reagan was elected in 1980 at a crucial time for America. The economy had stumbled for almost a decade under “stagflation,” caused by President Nixon taking the country off the gold standard in 1971, which pushed the middle class into upper-income tax brackets and produced double-digit inflation and interest rates above 20 percent. President Carter’s foreign policy was seen as feckless, especially after Iranian militants seized as hostages 66 Americans in the U.S. embassy in Tehran on November 9, 1979, and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan just after Christmas Day that year. America also endured long lines at gas stations. This was blamed on the Iranians and the Arab oil countries, though the real causes were inflation from going off gold and artificial shortages caused by price controls on gasoline.
Reagan swept into office promising to make America “stand tall” against foreign foes, tame inflation and the budget deficit, cut taxes, cut spending, restore the gold standard, eliminate the departments of Energy and Education, and restore morality to the country, especially through appointing “strict constructionists” to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Given his own criteria, he must be judged mostly a failure.
His major success was in winding down the Cold War with the Soviet Union without a nuclear confrontation that could have killed tens of millions on both sides. Credit for the mostly peaceful end to the Cold War goes to others as well, including Pope John Paul II, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But among them only Reagan had his finger on the button, able to launch a nuclear arsenal that included 40,000 bombs, roughly the same number controlled by Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev.
Reagan’s other accomplishment was reviving the economy, although he could have done much more. In 1981, he cut taxes overall by 23 percent, although full implementation was delayed until 1983, extending the recession another two years as people postponed investments until the cuts took full effect. The top income-tax rate went from 70 to 50 percent; and in 1986, to 28 percent. (Currently, the top rate is 35 percent.) In 1983, the economy soared with a seven-percent growth rate.
Reagan indexed income taxes for inflation but didn’t make it retroactive, so the middle class was stuck in fairly high income-tax brackets. (At least further “bracket creep” was prevented.)
After the gold standard ended in 1971, the dollar’s value declined from $35 per ounce of gold to $800 in 1980. Under Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, whom Reagan reappointed, gold dipped down to $350 during Reagan’s first term and averaged about that amount until 2001, when Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan (whom Reagan appointed) panicked after September 11 and ignited inflation again, a policy continued by his successor, Ben Bernanke. The dollar has now declined to $1,400 per ounce of gold, which explains why your gas and grocery bills have risen and the economy is stuck in another 1970’s-style stagflation.
Reagan’s economic policy laid the foundation of more than two decades of economic growth, with only two minor recessions (1990-91 and 2000-01). The two major failures of Reagan’s economic policy were that he didn’t make income-tax indexing retroactive to 1971 and didn’t go back to the pre-1970 gold standard (let alone abolish the Federal Reserve entirely).
He also was “snookered,” as he later admitted, in 1982 by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole into increasing taxes $99 billion, in return for three times that amount in spending cuts, which never arrived. And Reagan appointed the Greenspan Commission, headed by the future Fed chairman, to review Social Security. The result was a massive Social Security tax increase that slammed the middle class and only postponed Social Security’s time of bankruptcy to the current generation.
The supply-side economic theory Reagan championed allowed for temporary budget deficits for a couple of years in exchange for tax cuts that increased production; the increased tax base would lead to greater tax income that would close the deficit gap. This actually happened in the late 1990’s after Bill Clinton (though slickly denying he was a supply-sider) cut both taxes and military spending. But under Reagan, budget deficits ballooned out of control.
Reagan admonished in his 1981 Inaugural Address, “Government isn’t the solution. Government is the problem.” But he increased the size of the problem—the federal budget—by 90 percent.
An early harbinger of disaster was the successful neoconservative campaign to nix M.E. Bradford, a great conservative scholar, as Reagan’s nominee for chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bradford was replaced by neocon lightweight Bill Bennett, later a national scold as head of the Department of Education and drug czar, until his gambling addiction tumbled out of the media slot machine.
Reagan was a failure in many other areas. He never abolished the departments of Education and Energy. He signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants. As immigrants consistently vote 70-percent Democratic, he thus signed the death warrant of the Republican Party in his home state of California, and soon in other states. The amnesty also encouraged more illegals to come here, a problem that continues.
His Supreme Court appointments were abysmal. Although Reagan, as governor of California, signed into law a bill legalizing abortion, as a presidential candidate he had campaigned as a pro-lifer. Reagan’s pro-life supporters expected him to appoint only pro-lifers to the court. We got only Antonin Scalia. Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, who had a pro-abortion record in the Arizona legislature, in part to fulfill another campaign promise to appoint the first distaff justice.
Reagan also appointed two pro-lifers who didn’t get confirmed. Robert Bork was pilloried by the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially by the odious Ted Kennedy, for being honest about his judicial philosophy, and lost a confirmation vote in the full Senate. And Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination after it became known that he had used marijuana. (How quaint that seems now, as every president since Bill Clinton has admitted to toking the sticky icky.)
In their place, Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy, who turned out to be pro-abortion and, as lagniappe, introduced the vile practice of citing the opinions of foreign courts into the excuses for his decisions. Thus, Reagan left the court more pro-abortion than he found it.
Reagan also appointed noted pediatrician C. Everett Koop as surgeon general, an unnecessary post that should have been abolished. Koop had been branded by liberals as “Dr. Kook” for his pro-life views, expressed in Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, a book cowritten with noted evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer. Pro-lifers went to bat for Koop during a grueling confirmation ordeal in 1981. Once confirmed, Koop stabbed his supporters in the back by supporting sex education for third graders.
In 1988, Koop personally wrote Understanding AIDS, a graphic, pornographic pamphlet mailed to all 107 million American homes. How many young children came home from school, grabbed the family mail from the mailbox, and read Dr. Kook’s filth? Reagan let it happen.
Even the Reagan military buildup was excessive. Of course, we see more clearly now that the Soviet Union’s aggressions of the 1970’s were the last gasp of a fading empire. But the Reagan administration let itself be influenced by the now-notorious Team B report “leaked” in 1976. Team B, made up mainly of neoconservatives early in their ascendancy, was given access to secret CIA intelligence on Soviet capabilities and wrote its own hawkish report that contrasted with the CIA’s more dovish analysis. But Team B, we now know, was inaccurate in its inflated assessment of Soviet capabilities.
The Reagan “standing tall” years thus twisted the conservative movement into an obsession with the military. The military budgets also increased the funding for defense companies, some of which ended up as donations to right-wing think tanks. And excessive defense spending also contributed to budget deficits.
The result was the eclipse of the old Russell Kirk-Mel Bradford type of conservatism and the rise of warmongering neoconservatism. Reagan wasn’t the apotheosis of conservatism; he was its gravedigger.
Ronald Reagan selected for his vice president George H.W. Bush, a card-carrying member of what were called “Rockefeller Republicans”—that is, liberals. Early on, “Bushies,” as conservatives called them in the 1980’s, burrowed into the new administration, attenuating Reagan’s best policy initiatives. The worst was Bush factotum Jim Baker, who served first as Reagan’s chief of staff, then as his treasury secretary. “Personnel is policy,” conservatives groaned as Reaganites were shunned for Bushies or neocons.
Reagan thus bears a good deal of responsibility for the disastrous presidencies of the two Bushes.
Another Reagan disaster most people don’t think about is how, during his years in office, the focus of conservatism’s outlook shifted to Washington. I was a journalist there from 1982 to 1987, the guts of the Reagan years. I always hated the city (except for its museums) and was happy to shake the dust off my feet when I left. But I knew dozens of conservatives who arrived from the plains and the Main Streets to do good for their country, but stayed to do well. They had campaigned for Reagan in 1980 and so had won appointments to be undersecretary of this or that, then ended up at think tanks or as lobbyists.
Before Reagan, the loci of conservatism were dispersed in Rockford, Mecosta, Orange County. After Reagan, there was one locus: inside the Beltway. Only in recent years, with the growth of the internet, the Tea Parties, and Tenth Amendment movements, has this begun to change.
“Let Reagan be Reagan” was a conservative battle cry, meaning “replace the Bush-Baker policies with Reagan policies.” At the end of the Reagan Era, Joe Sobran quipped, “Let Reagan be somebody else.”