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Ronald Reagan and his legacy

Had Ronald Reagan shown his resum� to a political consultant fifty years ago, he probably would have been told to abandon any thoughts of a political career. To be sure, he was photogenic and had good name recognition as a B-list movie actor and television spokesman for General Electric. But important negatives seemed to dominate: Reagan had never run for public office; he had switched parties, abandoning his early preference for Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic Party; and he had been involved in a well-publicized Hollywood divorce at a time when divorce was a virtual political career-ender. Moreover, he sat out World War II making movies while voters seemed eager to reward military heroes. Five-star general Dwight Eisenhower had just been elected president and both political parties included younger aspirants with sterling wartime records, including Bob Dole, George Bush, Jack Kennedy and many others.

How then do we explain Reagan's landslide election to the presidency in 1980, followed by an even more impressive victory four years later, and the public affection being displayed this week?

Part of the answer lies in his four predecessors to the White House. In important respects, Reagan was the antithesis of the devious power-broker Lyndon Johnson, whose effectiveness died in the Vietnam quagmire; the even more devious Richard Nixon, whose cover-up of the Watergate crimes forced his resignation; the amiable but inarticulate Gerald Ford; and the well-meaning Jimmy Carter, who told Americans things that they did not necessarily want to hear and who could neither tame inflation nor force the return of Americans hostage from Iran.

Carter and Reagan had different leadership styles and the differences help to explain the latter's greater political success. Carter was a micro-manager and his message to the American people emphasized difficulties and the sacrifices needed to cope with them. He spoke of a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate national "malaise" and of the need to conserve energy in the face of OPEC-driven increases oil prices.

Whereas Carter conveyed a message of limits and scattered his political resources, Reagan focused on two themes--the inherent superiority of democracy and capitalism over Soviet-style communism, and the need to cut taxes--and he delegated heavily rather than micro-managed policies. Reagan delivered his message in an engaging manner, rivaling the ability of his early political hero, FDR, to make effective use of the mass media. During the presidential debates, one might disagree with Reagan's policy positions, but it was hard to dislike a man who conveyed them directly in an easy-going style. Above all, he continually emphasized the reassuring message--"Morning in America"--that America's best days lay in the future.

Reagan's most important achievements centered on the end of the Cold War, and in this respect he displayed a surprising pragmatic streak. During his first term he had described the USSR as an "evil empire" but by end of his second he referred to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as "my friend." Gorbachev's acquiescence in dismantling the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was an important turning point in twentieth century history. Reagan played a key role, if only because the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship helped to prevent a cataclysmic end to the Cold War.

The peaceful end of the Cold War was the high point of Reagan's foreign policy legacy, but his policies in the Middle East fared less well. He broke his repeated pledge never to negotiate with terrorists by providing arms to "moderates" in Tehran without much success in getting the promised release of American hostages. He also approved massive material and intelligence aid to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq to prevent its defeat by Iran during their long war.

Reagan came to office vowing to reduce taxes, arguing that such cuts would increase government revenues sufficiently to pay for increased defense spending and to balance the federal budget. While he obtained both a massive tax cut in 1981 and increased Pentagon outlays, budget deficits ballooned, averaging well over $200 billion from 1983-86. In response, Reagan once again proved to be somewhat pragmatic as he accepted subsequent tax increases. These were insufficient, however, to reduce the huge deficits, resulting in an increase in the national debt from just under $1 billion to over $2.8 billion during the Reagan years. Many Republicans today cite the Reagan experience as allegedly proving that tax cuts are more important than deficits.

The tragedy of Reagan's life was that Alzheimer's disease snuffed out the last decade of a once active and vibrant man. If his death helps to bring that mind-robbing disease to the front burner of medical research agendas--his devoted wife Nancy seems determined that it will--perhaps that will be another part of Reagan's legacy, just as eradication of polio was partly the consequence of FDR's affliction.

Ole Holsti is George V. Allen professor of political science.


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