The Mixed Legacy of Ronald Reagan

Jacob Heilbrunn has a review in the January/February issue of our magazine of a new biography of Ronald Reagan authored by Jacob Weisberg. Heilbrunn has three main observations about the book and our 40th president.

First, if you go back and look at what Reagan was saying in 1975 as he announced his challenge to President Ford for the Republican nomination, it sounds pretty much exactly like what all the Republican candidates are saying today, which proves the Gipper’s lasting influence on the GOP.

The former Republican governor made it clear that he was intent on campaigning for the party’s presidential nomination as an outsider who would take on the vested interests in the very heart of national government. “In my opinion, the root of these problems lies right here—in Washington, D.C,” he announced at the National Press Club in the fall of 1975. “Our nation’s capital has become the seat of a ‘buddy’ system that functions for its own benefit—increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker who supports it with his taxes.” He ended by reminding the audience that he was “not a member of the Washington establishment” but, instead, “a citizen representing my fellow citizens against the institution of government.”

He would later famously say that the federal government was the problem, not the solution, thereby casting the Republican Party as somewhat of a permanent minority or oppositional or anti-establishment party. This conflict has evolved from a rhetorical device into a national crisis as one of our two major political parties is constitutionally uninterested in and incapable of governing.

Second, that despite Reagan’s hardline rhetoric, as both a governor and a president he was quite adept at and interested in compromise. Moreover, his record isn’t the record of a consistent conservative, at least in the contemporary sense.

In Sacramento, for example, he signed a “therapeutic abortion” bill that effectively legalized the procedure in California. He doubled state spending on higher education. And he added 145,000 acres to the state park system and approved the strictest emissions regulations in the country. He told an aide, “Anytime I can get 70 percent of what I’m asking for out of a legislative body, I’ll take it.”

As president, he also was prepared to compromise. After he passed his big tax cut in 1981, Reagan backtracked as the federal deficit soared. According to Weisberg, Reagan agreed to “a five-cent gas tax, followed by a hike in Social Security taxes recommended by the bipartisan Greenspan Commission. In 1984 he agreed to another $18 billion in increased taxes on phone services, liquor, and tobacco. There were further tax increases in bills Reagan signed in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988.”

And, third, that Reagan differed from many of the hardline neoconservatives that surrounded him in that he believed both that the Soviets could be negotiated with and that they could be utterly defeated. It’s well known that Reagan aggressively pursued nuclear arms control treaties with the USSR but it’s less well-remembered that he saw the Soviet system as fatally flawed and therefore weak.

In an unpublished statement from 1962, Reagan wrote, “Communism is neither an economic or a political system—it is a form of insanity—a temporary aberration which will one day disappear from the earth because it is contrary to human nature.”

…Reagan wrote in his diary in April 1983, “Some of the N.S.C. staff are too hard line & don’t think any approach should be made to the Soviets. I think I’m hardline & and will never appease but I do want to try & let them see there is a better world if they’ll show by deed they want to get along with the free world.”

As you can see, the current Republican Party is in some ways the natural offspring of Reagan’s anti-Washington rhetoric, but they differ from him in substantial ways. Reagan raised taxes when he thought it was necessary. He called the Soviets the “Evil Empire” and expanded our proxy wars to contest their power everywhere, but he didn’t see them as a particularly strong or compelling alternative to the West. In this, he reminds me of how President Obama would like us to think about the threat of the Islamic State and Iran. Dangerous, yes, and horribly misguided. Evil, even, but aside from the threat of nuclear weapons or other WMD’s, not as formidable as they’d like us to believe.

It seems to me that Reagan’s legacy is more mixed than either side will now allow, but the Republicans have tended to take the worst parts and sweep the best parts under the rug.

Make sure to read the whole review.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.