The Ironies of Reagan's Seven Years

Steven E. Ambrose is the Richard M. Nixon scholar at Whittier College and a biographer of Nixon and Eisenhower.

Seven years ago, in his 1981 State of the Union address, Ronald Reagan kept it blunt and simple in his description of the state of the nation's economy: "I regret to say that we're in the worst economic mess since the Great Depression."

To make his point, he used attention-getters: runaway deficits of almost $80 billion, 13% inflation, 7 million unemployed and a 15.4% home-mortgage rate.

Reagan warned that if those figures weren't reduced, "We may in spite of our best efforts see a national debt in excess of a trillion dollars. Now this is a figure that's literally beyond our comprehension."

The incomprehensible of 1981 was hardly worth a shrug in Reagan's description of the state of the union in 1988. Although the federal deficit has nearly tripled, he claims to have made "progress" in controlling the red ink because the government supposedly spent "less in real terms last year than the year before."

As usual, Reagan is breathing fire on the budget. He pledges "swift and certain use of the veto power" to counter any attempt to break his agreement with Congress to reduce the deficit by $76 billion in the next two years. But Reagan is a toothless tiger on this one; he managed to sustain only a single veto last year--a year in which he vetoed but three bills, a near-record low. Clearly a balanced budget, or even any movement in that direction, will not be a legacy of the Reagan Administration, despite his promise in his 1981 State of the Union address to achieve that.

On inflation, unemployment and mortgage rates, Reagan has been successful in lowering the figures. These are the great successes of his presidency, but it will be 10 years or more before we can begin to judge whether they represent permanent changes or not.

Reagan put it well in '81: "We can leave our children with an unrepayable massive debt and a shattered economy, or we can leave them liberty in a land where every individual has the opportunity to be whatever God intended us to be."

Which will it be? The doom-sayers warn us that we have paid for the Reagan years with postdated checks drawn on our children's as yet non-existent bank accounts. My generation got its inheritance free of encumbrance; my children are starting their careers with a gigantic debt to pay off.

The chief single cause of the deficit has been the military buildup and Reagan's commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, the most expensive weapons system in history.

As he made clear Monday night, the President remains wedded to "Star Wars." But balanced against SDI is the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (the sustained applause from Congress was an illustration of just how badly everyone wants some cap put on this absurd arms race). INF is Reagan's greatest achievement in foreign policy, the one for which --if there is a follow-up in further reductions--he will be praised by history.

There are a couple of ironies here.

First, although hardly noticed in the coverage of the 1981 State of the Union, Reagan let it be known that arms control would be part of his agenda: "We remain committed to a goal of arms limitation through negotiation and hope we can persuade our adversaries to come to realistic balance and verifiable agreements."

Second, he came into office as a man who had been scathing in his criticisms of both detente and SALT II. He could well be leaving as the man who finally turned around the nuclear-arms race. Of course, if arms reduction stops with INF and SDI goes forward, he will be remembered for the opposite.

Seven years ago Reagan hardly spoke about foreign policy. Contrast that with Monday night, when he made a passionate appeal for further aid to the Nicaraguan Contras.

But his experience in funding the Contra war only points up one of Reagan's major problems in creating his historic image: He has accomplished so little. "Today, America is strong and democracy is everywhere on the move," he said Monday. "From Central America to East Asia, ideas like free markets and democratic reforms and human rights are taking hold."

This may be true in some parts of the world, but not yet in the places that Reagan specifically targeted in 1981. When he became President, he denounced the regimes in Cuba, Poland, Nicaragua and Afghanistan and demanded change. Yet, especially with regard to Cuba, Reagan has tolerated the status quo or raised token opposition for seven years.

But that brings us to the final, and most rewarding, irony. Reagan ran in 1980 as the most hawkish candidate since Barry Goldwater. He wanted to take the offensive against communism around the world. Now, these seven years later, he is in sight of establishing the all-time Cold War record for sustained peace. Dwight Eisenhower gave us 7 1/2 years; no other President has done better than four years of peace since 1940.

It was fun to see the old pro in action Monday night, using those stage props (the budget) so effectively, and drawing tears across the nation with his tribute to Nancy. This was a good reminder that he is a professional actor. With his rhetoric of being a hawk and his record as a peace-maker, we must raise the question: Has he been fooling us all these seven years?

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