Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, died on Saturday, just short of his 93rd birthday, after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
His death also fell a day shy of the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion. On the twentieth anniversary of that event, Reagan gave one of the most memorable speeches of his Presidency. It was a riveting oration on the Normandy Beaches that I saw again on C-Span the other night. The speech remains great theater even today. Cynics will say that Reagan was no great statesman, merely a skilled deliverer of speeches written by others. Even if true, which I don’t entirely accept, it is no small accomplishment to capture a moment as brilliantly as Reagan did that day. Anyone who doubts it should watch George W. Bush’s pale and unsuccessful attempts to do the same.
Ronald Reagan is the most prolific vote-getter in American history. There are fifty million more eligible voters than there were when he ran for President, but no one yet has captured the electorate’s imagination as he did. Whether you agreed with all of his policies or not, there was no denying that Reagan was an intensely likeable man. He is one of the few Presidents to have left office more popular than when he entered it. Even his Administration’s scandals and missteps, some of them serious, have not stuck to him personally.
To be sure, Reagan was the beneficiary of exquisite timing. In his first election, he had the great gift to have Jimmy Carter as his opponent. Despite a blazing intellect, Carter was an incompetent chief executive. He projected an image of self-defeat and aspirations to be merely mediocre. The failed mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, although not his fault, embodied for many the downfall of his Presidency. Any reasonably attractive Republican nominee was going to beat Jimmy Carter.
A President’s re-election is generally a referendum on the economy. By November 1984, the economic cycle was in full rebound. It’s doubtful that any Democrat could have beaten Reagan, but Reagan could hardly have had a more generous opponent than Walter Mondale, a retro liberal whose politics were about ten years out of date, and whose most memorable campaign pledge was to raise taxes. Mondale’s one enduring contribution to Presidential politics was to name the first woman to a major national ticket, but Geraldine Ferraro did him no good in November.
Even if some of Ronald Reagan’s accomplishments were handed to him by the Democrats, we must be careful not to underestimate his legacy. Ronald Reagan defines the modern Republican Party, which now controls both houses of Congress, most of the Federal judiciary, and has won four of the last six Presidential elections. Just as most modern Democrats want to be Kennedy, most modern Republicans want be Reagan. Indeed, Reagan’s legacy is by far the more powerful one. Kennedy was martyred, but he accomplished little; he is more important for the promise he showed than for what he delivered. Reagan’s policies are still with us. The leaders of his party continue to preach what he preached. Their greatest modern political defeat, George H. W. Bush’s loss in 1992, is attributed to his decision to endorse a tax hike, something the Party’s orthodoxy insists Reagan would never have done.
Most credit Reagan with the end of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, a process that began during his term and ended during that of his successor. To be sure, Soviet communism was running on fumes by the time Reagan came to power, and its eventual demise might have been inevitable, but Reagan’s hawkish stance certainly helped topple it. His speech in Berlin – “Tear this wall down, Mr. Gorbachev” – is one of the searing memories of the Reagan Presidency. It is a telling counterpoint to the famous Kennedy speech – “Ich bin ein Berliner” – which sounded a chord of pan-Atlantic solidarity, but didn’t exhort anyone to do anything.
Reagan’s greatest failure is a fiscally irresponsible tax-and-spend policy that, sadly, is still with us. His platform certainly sounded appealing: cut taxes, increase defense spending, shrink the rest of the government, and balance the budget. Unfortunately, only the first two happened, and the national debt tripled on his watch. The economic theory he endorsed – that reducing taxes would actually increase government tax revenues – has failed again and again. Yet, George W. Bush has sold the Congress and the American public the same bill of goods, with the same predictable results. A purported “tax simplification” bill passed during Reagan’s second term actually managed to make the tax system more complicated.
Whether you agree with Reagan’s tax-and-spend policy or not, its influence cannot be denied. On domestic policy, today’s Republican Party is essentially a one-note band, with tax cuts disproportionately aimed at the wealthy as the only substantive economic idea they have to offer. Republicans who favor fiscal responsibility and deregulation as engines of economic growth have been largely frozen out of the debate by party leaders who view themselves as Reagan’s political disciples.
I have mixed feelings about Reagan’s accomplishments and to what extent he was personally responsible for them, but I voted for him twice. Whatever faults he may have had, he was better for the country at the time than either Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Walter Mondale in 1984. I also favored the first Bush over Michael Dukakis, but I haven’t voted for a Republican Presidential candidate since. Reagan was what the country needed in 1980, but the party hasn’t had a serious original idea in decades. George W. Bush, who has none of Reagan’s charisma or charm, seems content to leave the government in the hands of clueless idealogues.
I must admit, I haven’t seen any great ideas out of John Kerry either, but as I noted at the top of this essay, a second-term election is a referendum on the incumbent, and it is hard to name anything that has gone particularly well under George W. Bush. Just as the 1980 election was more a rejection of Carter than an endorsement of Reagan, the 2004 election should be a rejection of Bush. Reagan took the opportunity that Fortune gave him, and turned it into one of the great Presidencies of the twentieth century. What Kerry will do is anyone’s guess, but at the moment neither party has a Ronald Reagan.