The Triumph Of Optimism
You call this a crisis? Think back nearly 30 years ago. When Ronald Reagan took office the country’s economy was in a shambles—inflation was running into the double digits, growth had stagnated and the top marginal tax rate was 70%. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, bristling with imperial designs and nuclear weapons, had recently invaded Afghanistan, installing a puppet regime, and Iran had ousted a pro-Western leader in favor of a fervently anti-American cleric. The White House tenure of Jimmy Carter, known for hand-wringing over “malaise” and a botched hostage-rescue mission, had led scholars to conclude that the American presidency, as an institution, was too weak to govern in the modern world.
And then came Reagan. He faced down the Soviets, cut taxes and revived the economy. Not least, he restored confidence in the presidency itself, providing a model for his successors. One of his legacies, visible in the outlook of every successful presidential candidate since, is an optimism about the nation, echoing his statement that “people who talk about an age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s.”
In “The Age of Reagan,” Steven F. Hayward offers a splendid narrative history of Reagan’s two terms in the White House—a period (1981-89) that amounted to what he calls a “counterrevolution,” reversing so much of what had spiraled downward in the late 1970s. Along the way, he supplies a keen analysis of just how much Reagan succeeded in changing America’s self-image, often by reasserting core principles.
One of Mr. Hayward’s many insights is that Reagan’s foreign and domestic outlook were unified more than we realize. Reagan believed that both the Soviet Union and Big Government at home represented threats to America’s future. In 1979, he confided to aide Richard Allen his view of the Cold War: “We win. They lose.” Two years later he used his inaugural address to call for scaling back the power of Washington: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” In the end, the Soviet Union turned out to be the weaker foe.
Reagan grasped “the simple fact,” Mr. Hayward writes, “that most of the Communist rulers lost the will to shoot their own people in large numbers.” By declaring the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” Reagan helped to undermine its legitimacy even as he unnerved it with a military buildup and the prospect of a missile-defense system that it could not replicate.
On the domestic front, it was a different story. Although the economy roared back in the 1980s, Mr. Hayward concedes that Reagan failed at “rolling back the domestic government empire.” The programs of the New Deal and Great Society—and the spending habits of Congress—were well-entrenched. Public opinion on the role of government in American life was ambivalent and not susceptible to some magic moment when Reagan could stand in front of the Federal Trade Commission and declare: “Tear down this regulation!”
Mr. Hayward shows how much opposition Reagan faced from within his own party when it came to domestic spending and other items on his agenda. After Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (then a Republican, now a Democrat) opposed a Reagan appointee, Reagan wrote that the action was “unjust and deeply wrong” and vowed not to campaign for the senator. About congressional Republicans in general he wrote: “We had rabbits when we needed tigers.”
Reagan was not an ideological purist; he moved to the center often enough, including negotiating arms-control agreements with the Soviets. Yet he remained popular with his base. Why? One reason was economic growth. While it is true that federal spending grew only slightly more slowly than it did under Mr. Carter, Reagan tax cuts and deregulation helped increase the size of the economic pie (GNP) by 27% between 1982 and 1988. Another reason was the extremism of Reagan’s critics. Mr. Hayward explodes the myth that Washington was a kinder, gentler place in the 1980s. From Clark Clifford’s description of Reagan as “an amiable dunce” to the Los Angeles Times’s graphic depiction of Reagan as a Hitler-like figure plotting a fascist putsch in a beer hall, the attacks were savage, creating a backlash of sympathy even among those who disagreed with particular Reagan positions or policies.
The last years of the second term, Mr. Hayward reminds us, were ineffective. Revelations about Reagan’s lax management during the Iran-Contra scandal rattled him to the point that, as Mr. Hayward notes, he yielded “much of the principled ground upon which he could defend his [foreign] policy.” Journalist Fred Barnes (quoted by Mr. Hayward) says that “the Reagan crowd didn’t want him to use his power much. That might cause his popularity to plummet, which would mean he’d lose power—circular logic if ever I heard it.”
Reagan came to realize how much work he had left undone and began promoting an Economic Bill of Rights, a package of constitutional reforms that included a federal spending limit and a requirement for a two-thirds majority in Congress for tax hikes. It was too little too late. Such initiatives were doomed to be ignored by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush.
Still, the accomplishments remain. Free-market ideas are a robust part of the mainstream policy debate—even if they have lost some traction recently. Traditional social norms, articulated so well by Reagan, have held their own in the continuing “culture wars.” Reagan’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine paved the way for the diverse media universe we now take for granted. In his 1989 farewell address, Reagan described his record by saying: “Not bad. Not bad at all.” The foreign-policy achievement is easily measured but should not obscure everything else. Mr. Hayward closes by quoting Gary McDowell, a former Reagan official: “Domestically Ronald Reagan did far less than he had hoped . . . less than people wanted—and a hell of a lot more than people thought he would.”
—Mr. Fund is a columnist for WSJ.com.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A15
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