Ronald Reagan in Perspective

Posted June 30, 2009, at 5:36 p.m.

Last month, the Capitol Rotunda in Washington glowed in good feeling for the dedication of a new 7-foot statue of Ronald Reagan.

President Obama, who is creating a panel to plan events for Mr. Reagan’s 100th birthday in 2011, said that “President Reagan helped as much as any president to re-store a sense of optimism in our country, a spirit that transcended politics.”

True enough. President Reagan did inspire many with new patriotic hope for the country’s future. He also is credited with cutting taxes, triggering the collapse of the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War, and, above all, as John Harwood put it in The New York Times recently, boosting morale after a period of national self-doubt. Mr. Harwood’s main point, however, was that some Republicans are reassessing whether their party should “let go” of Mr. Reagan as their current symbol.

But beyond any Republican misgivings, there lurks a serious question as to what he actually accomplished as president.

Did he really end the Cold War? When he told the East Germans: “Tear down this wall,” they and other satellite nations were already restive under Soviet mastery, and the Soviet Union itself was nearing collapse.

He did, indeed, lower the income tax, particularly at its high end, but the tax cuts, combined with his lavish spending, started an enormous increase in the national debt. Worse, he planted a widespread false belief that tax cuts increase federal revenues.

He called government “the problem” rather than the solution and led a national drive for deregulation of government controls. That led not only to questionable changes in the electric-power, telecommunications, air and rail transportation, and banking industries, but also arguably to the risky in-vesting that helped bring on the current recession.

His secret and illegal financing of the “Contras” in El Salvador, besides creating a domestic scandal, fueled anti-American hostility through most of Latin America and opened the way for inroads there by Cuba and China. The same in Africa for his support of right-wing insurgents in Angola.

His expanded covert support of Muslim “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan helped end the Soviet rule there, which Moscow already regretted as a misguided failure. But it also supplied sophisticated weapons to the Afghan Jihadists (including Osama bin Laden) who later organized al-Qaida and attacked the United States.

He also presided over a new conservative network of think tanks, publications and pundits who assailed those who questioned Reagan policies as un-American defeatists and persuaded many Americans that liberalism was a bad word.

Mr. Obama, as a pragmatist, admired Mr. Reagan’s success in attracting “Reagan Democrats” and managed to attract many “Obama Republicans.” But he and others should keep the Reagan mythology in perspective.

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