The Great Communicator. The president who won the Cold War. The man who restored American pride. Ronald Reagan, born 100 years ago Feb. 6, remains an icon for conservatives. And though he converted many Democrats to vote for him and the Republican Party, the credit Mr. Reagan is given for a host of accomplishments infuriates many liberals.
In some ways, he can be seen as a tabula rasa onto which conservatives project their core values. Liberals, meanwhile, dismiss Mr. Reagan as an intellectual lightweight whose vision for America seemed based on a 1950s-era fantasy. Though many Americans — including Gov. Paul LePage — are inclined to see Mr. Reagan in the golden glow of nostalgia, the facts about his presidency lead to a more complicated assessment of his legacy.
All agree that Mr. Reagan was affable and charming and that he exuded a sincere confidence in the goodness and the promise of America. And he was a president whose tenure matched the times perfectly. After the Vietnam debacle, Watergate, the double-digit interest rates of the Carter years and the humiliation of seeing a group of Iranians hold the U.S. embassy staff — and the nation — hostage, Mr. Reagan’s message that the United States was largely a force for good in the world resonated with many. The nation needed to hear that its best days were not in the past.
His assertion — in his inaugural address of 1981 — that government was not the solution but the problem was a right hook to the jaw of the New Deal to the Great Society years. It, too, seemed the right message for the times.
But what Mr. Reagan actually did while in office is rife with contradictions. And the credit he gets from conservatives today is not always grounded in the reality of his decisions.
As journalist Robert Parry posits at Consortium News, “Reagan convinced millions of Americans that the threats they faced were: African-American welfare queens, Central-American leftists, a rapidly expanding Evil Empire based in Moscow, and the do-good federal government.” And so his disdain for the welfare state and his devotion to the arms race drove his budget decisions. But “welfare” amounted to a pittance of the federal budget while the military expenditures he championed swelled deficits so wide that Mr. Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, had to break his “read my lips” promise and raise taxes.
Many in the CIA saw the Soviet Union headed for collapse by the late 1970s. But Mr. Reagan’s contrary view led to covert U.S. support for Afghan Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden. And of course, his covert military opposition to Marxists in Central America — who could have been courted as allies with aid — led to the Iran-Contra scandal.
Mr. Reagan’s economic philosophy was born during his Hollywood years, when the income tax rate for big earners such as movie stars was a ridiculous 88 percent in 1943. Cutting that top rate made sense, but his belief that catering to the “supply side” of the economic equation — that is, easing the burden on those who created wealth and jobs — would grow the demand side, is largely discredited today.
Mr. Reagan’s beliefs may make for a good conservative vision statement. His record clouds the efficacy of that vision.