The Facts About the Reagan Presidency

Tear Down This MythA more factual synopsis of the Reagan presidency might read like this: that Reagan was a transformative figure in American history, but his real revolution was one of public relations-meets-politics and not one of policy. He combined his small-town heartland upbringing with a skill for storytelling that was honed on the back lots of Hollywood into a personal narrative that resonated with a majority of voters, but only after it tapped into something darker, which was white middle-class resentment of 1960s unrest. His story arc did become more optimistic and peaked at just the right moment, when Americans were tired of the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and wanted someone who promised to make the nation feel good about itself again. But his positive legacy as president today hangs on events that most historians say were to some great measure out of his control: an economic recovery that was inevitable, especially when world oil prices returned to normal levels, and an end to the Cold War that was more driven by internal events in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe than Americans want to acknowledge. His 1981 tax cut was followed quickly by tax hikes that you rarely hear about, and Reagan’s real lasting achievement on that front was slashing marginal rates for the wealthy—even as rising payroll taxes socked the working class. His promise to shrink government was uttered so often that many acolytes believe it really happened, but in fact Reagan expanded the federal payroll, added a new cabinet post, and created a huge debt that ultimately tripped up his handpicked successor, George H W Bush. What he did shrink was government regulation and oversight, which critics have linked to a series of unfortunate events from the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s to the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped paper over some less noble moments in foreign policy, from trading arms for Middle East hostages to an embarrassing retreat from his muddled engagement in Lebanon to unpopular adventurism in Center America. The Iran-Contra scandal that stemmed from those policies not only weakened Reagan’s presidency when it happened, but it arguably undermined the respect for future presidents for the Constitution because he essentially got away with it. Over the course of eight years, the president that some want to enshrine on Mount Rushmore rated just barely above average for modern presidents in public popularity. He left on a high note—but only after two years of shifting his policy back to the center, seeking peace with the Soviets rather than confrontation, reaching a balanced new tax deal with Democrats, and naming a moderate justice to the Supreme Court. It was not the Reaganism invoked by today’s conservatives.

—Will Bunch
Tear Down This Myth
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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Facts About the Reagan Presidency

  1. That’s a good book, I liked it, but I can’t in good faith hang the subprime mortgage collapse on Reagan. That’s Clinton’s baby. And there were infinitely more crooks prosecuted/jailed under Repubs for the S&L scam than the subprime one under Dems. (However, that’s quite possibly because back in the day Repubs actually thought they’d face public backlash if they didn’t send an odd Keating or Milken to Club Fed. Likely they wouldn’t, now.)

    Maybe my favorite part of the book was about why Reagan supported nuclear arms reduction — because a TV movie gave him the heebie-jeebies. (Too bad there wasn’t a big TV movie about how awesome the New Deal had been.) Reagan was certainly bright, but he bought whatever lunacy was sold to him with the maximum of Dramatic Silliness. Hey, we have a missile gap(*), fund the MX or Commies will invade Ohio! Oh, wait — my gosh, nuke war looks spooky when it happens to Jason Robards! Well, I don’t go to churn much, but what you say about Armageddon certainly makes sense to me! And dad-gummit, Mr. Friedman, I do believe in freedom!

    Modern right-wingers (the word "conservative" has no meaning anymore) are correct to salute Reagan as their ancestor (with Goldwater and McCarthy as the, um, "missing links," to use a metaphor referencing those LIES about evil-ution.) His was an intelligence unswayed by judgment and impervious to anything as mundane as fact.

    (* — There was no missile gap. The CIA determined this in the late ’70s, presumably from undercover sources. Then defense industry think tanks paid for new studies, with zero sources, that claimed The Commies were stronger than ever. Our good friends Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld were among the sages consulted. This is the backstory to John Le Carre’s "The Russia House," made into a slow but intelligent movie of the same name.)

  2. @JMF – I hear you about the subprime thing. But here’s the thing: Reagan started it. And although Clinton went along with it, it wasn’t his baby–it came out of the Republican House. What’s more, Clinton and Obama both see themselves as heirs to Reagan, which is really what Bunch is talking about.

    As for no one going to jail, that’s really not a partisan thing. It was easy to put the S&L folk in jail: they were rich but not super-rich and politically connected. The subprime folks were the super-rich, and even more, they were big contributors to both parties.

    The problem with the New Democrats is that they followed in the path of Reagan. The argument I’ve been making for some time is that the Democrats moved rightward and took over what used to be the Republican Party. The Republicans have been forced to the nutty fringe. I could go on, but it would just make me annoyed.

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