Rest in Peace, Ronald W. Reagan
Former President Reagan has passed away at a particularly critical moment for the conservative movement he fathered. Setbacks in Iraq have many on the right questioning the whole idea of internationalist foreign policy, of which Reagan was an enthusiastic champion. When I was young and left-leaning, I often disparaged him as dangerous and/or incompetent -- just as so many people are disparaging President Bush today -- even though I grudgingly admired his sincere devotion to core principles. Eventually I came to respect him for his leadership abilities and for being right about most of the major issues of foreign, social, and economic policy. During a study session with fellow grad students at U.Va. in the mid-1990s, I opined that Reagan might be as close as we would ever come in our lifetime to having a truly great president. Of course, that elicited hearty scoffs. As his biographer Lou Cannon wrote, Reagan was underestimated by many of his political opponents, and he capitalized on this over and over again.
For what should Reagan be remembered? Most obviously, for defying conventional wisdom and standing up to Soviet expansionism around the world, ultimately reversing and defeating it. When he took office in January 1981, no serious person could have imagined that the Soviet Union would peacefully dissolve eleven years hence. It was Reagan who went ahead with deploying Pershing II missiles and cruise missiles in Europe at the climax of the Cold War, it was Reagan who refused to make concessions to Gorbachev at Rejkyavik in 1987, and it was Reagan who called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall" in Berlin later that year. These breathtakingly bold actions were called "reckless" by hysterical opponents at the time, but they were part of a strategic vision that paved the way for the West's unequivocal triumph in the Cold War. By neutralizing the fear wielded by Soviet imperialists which had much of the Western world paralyzed, he not only spawned a renaissance of investor confidence but undermined the authority of the Communist regimes of the Warsaw Pact, hastening their demise.
I must call attention, however, to one pernicious legacy of the Reagan years: the idea now popular among many anti-tax activists that budget deficits don't matter. Remember Arthur Laffer? Of course not. He and his wacko theory of "supply-side economics" (rightly scorned by then-candidate George H. W. Bush in 1980 as "voodoo economics") have been relegated to the dustbin of history. For many hard-core tax cutters, the fact that there is no longer any serious intellectual foundation for their beliefs does not seem to matter. True, the burgeoning deficits of the 1980s were not solely Reagan's fault, because the Democrats retained control of the House, and in a divided government policy responsibility is inherently hard to pin down. It would be hard to deny, however, that the deficits were to some extent deliberate, as part of a stimulative package not unlike the Keynesian "pump priming" of the 1930s. There were particular reasons why the United States managed to cope with and overcome those huge deficits -- mainly the massive credit inflows from Japan during the 1980s -- but those conditions no longer exist. Reagan's stewardship of the U.S. economy was on balance positive, but the Wall Street mini-crash of 1987 revealed the nation's shaky financial foundations that were not shored up until the Republican Revolution of 1995, when fundamental budget reforms were enacted.