Democrats & Liberals Archives

The Reagan Legacies

I am clearly, fundamentally and unabashedly a liberal Democrat, strange for one raised in a strong Republican family. At the very moment I was allowed to choose my own personal party affiliation I had no question, no doubt which party my ideals most closely paralleled. For nearly twenty-five years I’ve held that the liberal positions are the most compassionate and the most focused on the well-being of the individual. I’ve voted accordingly. Admittedly, the vote has often been against the Republican candidate rather than for the Democrat. I can accept that compromise on general principle alone.

The election of 1980 was the first in which I was eligible to vote. As a US Navy journalist aboard the USS Forrestal, I spent my summers in the Mediterranean, the home seas of the US Sixth Fleet. I put the proper navy spin on the hostage-taking in Iran. I watched as Soviet trawlers shadowed our every move, the final defiant acts of a dying regime. The Mediterranean in the early 1980s was a dangerous place; the Cold War, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, and Israeli raids on nuclear facilities. Even to my strongly Democratic values, Jimmy Carter was quickly losing control of both our status in the world and our world-influencing economy. In my first opportunity to cast a presidential ballot, I found myself in a military hotbed of Reagan support, carrying strong doubts about the Democratic incumbent.

I didn't vote for Ronald Reagan that year, or in 1984. As a serviceman and later a blue-collar civilian, I found his rhetoric dangerously strong. I was of the opinion that public statements decrying the "evil empire" only placed our military and our country in greater danger. While clearly surrounded by capable diplomats and staff, Reagan conveyed a naievete in world affairs that often bordered on jingoism. His conservative values seemed too classically focused on advancing the good of the whole by making better the lives of the few - the "trickle down" theory.

But, for all the perceived flaws, Ronald Reagan was possessed of a charisma, a simple charm that spoke directly, even optimistically, to all in America, from the wealthiest to the most downtrodden. Over the eight years of his Presidency, Reagan effortlessly assumed the role of a strict yet down to earth grandfather to the country and the world. By the end of his second term in 1988, I had to admit to a grudging admiration of his ability to rally the country with a homespun tale or analogy. That his successor was the very definition of bland Washington beaurocrat only made the feeling stronger. Reagan had the orator's gift of communication, effortlessly weaving the hopes and values of all into a message that clearly, almost transparently supported his own beliefs. We've seen that ability in subsequent presidents, but never in circumstances in which they were so sorely needed.

Time, as time will, has more sharply defined the Reagan legacies. Just as Richard Nixon received some resuscitation by the passage of time, so has Ronald Reagan. To my mind, the Reagan legacies are important to the United States. Unfortunately, critical elements have clearly been forgotten by the Republican administration in power. And like the great legacies of the great presidents, the Reagan legacies, in hindsight, reach beyond the partisan rancor of the times.

The case can be made that Ronald Reagan was the first president to truly understand the power of the Federal Reserve. Reagan inherited Paul Volker as the Fed chair from the Carter administration, and chose to stay with him through 1987. Volker was often perceived as headstrong, resolute in twin beliefs that were not necessarily popular at the time: that interest rates controlled inflation and that deficits must actually advance the economy. Neither higher interest rates nor higher deficits were, by themselves, bad policy. But they simply had to be weighed against their collective impact on the economy.

Despite Reagan's natural Republican abhorrence of both high interest rates and high deficits, he stayed with Paul Volker and his theories through the bulk of his presidency. That ability to view the results of a policy rather than to judge it on purely philosophical merits resulted in the economic recovery of the eighties from the inflation and high unemployment rates of the late seventies. While the subsequent Bush administration squandered that growth in significant ways, Volker's tenure and Reagan's grudging, often passive support of his policies laid the groundwork for their further refinement in the person of Alan Greenspan and the administration of Bill Clinton. The resulting economic growth was unprecedented in American history. Despite a fundamental disagreement over the roles of interest rates and deficits, Ronald Reagan tacitly ceded more economic power to the Federal Reserve that any other president in history. That, though indirect, is the first of the Reagan legacies.

Ronald Reagan was idolized by hawks the world over for his tough public stance on communism. In the early years of his presidency, Reagan was relentless in his criticism of both the ideololgy and practices of the modern communist state. In speech after speech, Reagan pounded home his personal belief that communism was, by its very nature, immoral. He broached no apology for his beliefs and made them clear at every opportunity. Importantly, while his public rhetoric was often over the top, he worked hard to support and justify those beliefs to the American people. Whether or not we agreed with the substance, the moral, economic and political flaws in communism were fundamental and somthing on which we could all agree.

So, was the second legacy of the Reagan years, as many neocons would argue, the fall of communism? Not really. As Americans, we believed for decades that the communist system simply could not last. To give Reagan exclusive credit for its fall is to give the rainmaker credit for the rain. The legacy lies not in the result but in the understanding and implmentation of a worldwide political strategy. Despite the tough talk, Reagan understood two fundamental facts: that communism would eventually collapse under its own weight, and that the use of military force to change the Soviet regime would do nothing to create a more world-friendly post-Soviet state. While Reagan greatly increased funding for the US military, the effect was more to enhance enlistment and increase morale than to crush the evil communists. Higher pay, larger numbers and advanced weapons research served more to paint the public face as one of strength and resolve. I don't believe it was ever intended to take on the Soviets head-to-head.

The second legacy of the Reagan years was, instead, the effort to put power, both political and philosophical, in the hands of the oppressed communist block citizenry. Reagan understood that while the threat of force must appear to be real, the only true victory over communism was the one that started from within. As outlined in this outstanding article from The Washington Monthly by General Wesley Clark, the fall of communism was the result of decades of persuasion throughout the communist world. Communism fell not from the top, but from the bottom, a crumbling that can be directly attributed to economic and political containment rather than military might. The behind-the-scenes political, economic and propaganda efforts of the Reagan administration helped push the citizenry of these countries to take action at great personal risk. It provided the momentum to finally collapse what was already a falling house of cards. Rather than bringing the strong rhetoric to life, Reagan quietly and persistently invited them into the capitalist world by showing these citizens its inherent strengths. And, even for a brief period, we emerged from the cold war as true heroes of freedom. Reagan's legacy regarding the fall of communism is a true understanding of the real power of the US. He understood the power of our economy. He believed fully that, given the proper economic and political tools, the communist system would fall from within. Despite his great distaste for the communist system, he stayed the only course that would result in the true liberation of the communist block.

As defined by WordNet, charisma is "a personal attractiveness that enables you to influence others." That, perhaps, was the most practical of the Reagan legacies. Ronald Reagan was capable, almost by sheer force of personality, to win over his opponents. We can't forget that the Reagan administration lived in a Washington environment controlled by a Democratic House. There was plenty of public rancor with heels dug in to protect the basic political tenets of the players. Reagan's legacy of policy victory is not that he was able to win, but rather how he was able to win. He worked behind the scenes at winning over his opponents by force of discussion and personality. He was capable of convincing his political foes to support his policies through conviction and persuasion. Like it or not, democracy is a child of the Enlightenment. The single brick upon which democracy is built is the ability to persuade through rational discourse, to state your beliefs clearly and win over your opponents by logic rather than force. The subsequent Bushes have shown no understanding of either the subtleties or importance of persuasion. Bill Clinton certainly had the charisma, but was saddled with other issues that left the door open for his political opponents. In many ways, it's taken the passage of years and presidents to fully appreciate the force of the Reagan charisma. Time has, indeed, shown that charisma and his ability to leverage it within the confines of the American system, to be the strongest of his political legacies.

I didn't vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 or in 1984. Given the chance, I think it unlikely that I'd vote for him even today. While his personality was, in the end, endearing, his political beliefs fell far too strongly at the opposite end of the spectrum from my own, both then and now. But to disagree with his politics is not to dismiss his political legacies as the 40th President of the United States. With his passing this weekend, we can reflect on his strengths as our leader for one small slice of our history. The inherent ability to see a course of action, to stay a successful course despite personal disagreement, and to exercise the invaluable power of diplomatic persuasion are legacies we should never forget.

Posted by Tony Steidler-Dennison at June 7, 2004 2:20 PM