The Pluses, Minuses : Reagan Era: What Will History Say?

Times Staff Writers

Let history say of us: These were golden years--when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, and America reached for her best.

--Ronald Reagan, Jan. 21, 1985

The 1980s, come what may, will be remembered as the Reagan era.

For most of the decade, Ronald Reagan has dominated the national stage like no other President in a generation. He set the agenda for the nation’s policy debates. He cut a personal style that future candidates will strive to emulate. He created a new coalition of middle-class voters, restored public confidence in the presidency and boasted of the longest economic expansion in postwar history.


Legacy Seems Ambiguous

And yet, as Reagan’s eight years in the White House approach their end, the legacy of this remarkable President appears increasingly ambiguous. Will the 1980s be remembered as “golden years,” as Reagan proposed midway through his reign? Or will they be seen, instead, as a decade in which some things were accomplished--but others, perhaps too many others, were left undone?

By most measures, the balance sheet of tangible achievements is mixed. Reagan halted the growth of government spending but failed to reach his goal of shrinking it. Far from dismantling the welfare state, he actually cemented its core more firmly into place. The economic recovery and military buildup he achieved came at fearsome cost: ballooning deficits and increasingly precarious dependence on economic forces beyond U.S. control.

Instead of his tangible record, however, scholars and politicians of both parties say that Reagan may be remembered best for an intangible achievement: the restoration of American self-confidence after a long period of corrosive self-doubt. Carried into office in 1980 by a national mood of discontent, Reagan summoned up enduring national values, told Americans that the country’s best days still lay ahead--and helped the nation’s spirits rebound.

“Reagan restored the notion that the President can be a strong national leader,” said Times political analyst William Schneider. “He reversed a 20-year trend of loss of confidence in national institutions and leaders.

“Remember, he followed four failed presidents in a row,” Schneider added. “Reagan did something fairly rare these days: He did what he was elected to do. He lowered the rate of inflation and improved military security.”

And, simply by winning, Reagan became the catalyst for a dramatic change in the nation’s political climate. The political center of gravity moved a long step toward the right, to a politics based squarely on the traditional attitudes and values he espoused.

“I think he will leave a legacy of leadership based on the way he led the Republican Party to a commitment to conservative principles,” said James McGregor Burns, a historian of the presidency at Williams College. “Reagan’s leadership on this score has been underestimated.”

At the same time, Burns added: “It’s a legacy of dreams unrealized and principles not carried out . . . a legacy of lost directions, of not being a hands-on leader, of not really knowing how to apply the conservatism that he had described so well in principle. So I see a legacy of effective ideological leadership--and a legacy of presidential failure.”

Regardless of the ultimate verdict on his performance in office, though, Reagan’s supporters and detractors agree that he changed the shape of American politics in ways that may endure well beyond his retirement to Los Angeles next year.

“Reagan changed the terms of the debate,” said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a conservative spokesman in the House of Representatives. “The debate now begins where Reagan left off. That’s true of Democrats as well as Republicans. It’s true on tax policy, on military issues, on the whole range.”

“Twenty years from now, I think the historians will still be puzzling over his popularity,” said Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), one of the new leaders of the post-Reagan Democratic Party. “Here was a man who cut all the programs that were most popular, he engaged in a number of foreign policy ventures that cost American lives to no effect whatever, and yet he maintained a deep affection and great popularity.

“I think it is a lesson for politicians that you should be who you are, and you should stand for something, and you should be strong.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that America’s best days are behind her, that the American spirit has been vanquished. We’ve seen it triumph too often in our own lives to see it stop now.

--Ronald Reagan, Jan. 26, 1982

When Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency in 1980, inflation stood at almost 13%, unemployment was at 7% and Americans were telling pollsters that the future looked darker than the past. It was a time of disillusionment in an electorate fed up with big government, fearful of national weakness and threatened by social change.

In the face of all that, Reagan tapped what sociologist Nathan Glazer has called the “enduring verities of the American consensus.” He declared that government power should be distrusted; that free enterprise was the key to progress; that the nation’s security should be assured at all costs; that the Soviet Union remained a threat; that America was exceptional, a model for the world.

‘Rise Above Pessimism’

“One of my dreams is to help Americans rise above pessimism by renewing their belief in themselves,” Reagan said.

Remarkably, it worked. Within four months of Reagan’s inauguration, a Time magazine poll found that 50% of those questioned said they thought the nation’s affairs were “going well"--up from only 21% a year before.

“Jimmy Carter came down from the mountain and said, ‘You’ve got malaise,’ ” said historian Walt Rostow of the University of Texas. “You can’t lead a Boy Scout troop that way. Ronald Reagan just came in and said, ‘Follow me.’ He was the Pied Piper. He took us over the cliff sometimes, but we could climb back, and the country felt better for it.”

Reagan spoke of reversing the course of the nation’s history, but his tone was reassuring. His vision was not of hardship or sacrifice but of abundance, world leadership and economic growth. If the economy was stagnating, Reagan would cure it by cutting taxes. If the federal deficit was increasing, the nation could simply “grow its way out.”

Some of those promises never came true. The low-inflation boom of the mid-1980s came only at the cost of a painful two-year recession; the federal deficit grew and grew. But popular confidence in the White House--in a President’s ability to lead, even if he sometimes fell short of his declared goals--returned to levels unseen since the 1960s. And Reagan’s own popularity, which had dipped to 40% during the recession, climbed back to 58% by mid-1984--a level sustained for more than two years, until the discovery of secret arms sales to Iran sent it tumbling.

The public’s confidence in the federal government as an institution, however, was largely unaffected by the Iran-Contra scandal. During the first half of 1987, as Congress was investigating the scandal, confidence in government rose from 42% to 54%. The rebound looked real--real enough to outlive Reagan’s own tenure.

“The country feels better . . . and that’s going to continue,” said John Sears, Reagan’s former campaign manager. “When Reagan came in, people really felt awful. I think that good feeling is going to last for a while.”

Bills Seen Coming Due

Not every observer--or every poll--agrees. With a mounting balance of federal debt and unsolved problems of poverty, drug abuse and a deteriorating economic infrastructure, there are signs that the Reagan Administration’s unpaid bills could fall on the Great Optimist’s successor all too soon.

“He’s been a good-time Charlie,” Rostow complained. “Nothing bad’s going to happen on my watch. Screw the future. That’s been the dark side of the guy.”

Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.

--Ronald Reagan, Jan. 20, 1981

Ironically, Reagan’s victory in rebuilding American confidence may actually have sapped public support for the other major goal in his domestic agenda: shrinking the size and power of the federal government.

“Since Reagan was popular,” says political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset of the Hoover Institution, “and since people identified his Administration as a success, that in turn made them more positive toward government--and more favorable toward government programs.”

Reagan succeeded in eliminating a few domestic programs and slowing the growth of non-defense spending. But by the end of his eight years in office, the share of national income that went to the federal government in taxes was almost exactly as high as when he began (19.3% in 1988, as opposed to 19.4% in 1980), and the number of civilians employed by the federal government had actually grown slightly (from 2.77 million to 2.85 million), although more held defense jobs than before.

“It’s the one area in which Reagan’s performance didn’t reach what he promised,” former campaign manager Sears says. “The politicians wouldn’t face the tough decisions to do it.”

Extension of New Deal?

Some scholars say that Reagan actually cemented the central ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal into place--by demonstrating that the most conservative President since the 1920s believed the federal government had an obligation to provide what Reagan called a “social safety net.” By the end of his time in office, Reagan was promoting federal catastrophic health insurance and subsidies for day care--hardly minimum-government programs.

“Reagan . . . consolidated the continued growth of New Deal-type legislation,” says Hugh Heclo of Harvard University. “The difference, of course, is that today we’re more sensitive about the price tag.”

Some, like Times political analyst Schneider, argue that Reagan actually achieved his major aim--freezing federal spending--by putting the budget into deep deficits.

“The deficit institutionalizes the Reagan Revolution, because it pulls the revenue plug on the federal government,” Schneider says. “The deficit makes it impossible to talk about any major new domestic spending without raising taxes. . . . Reagan de-funded the welfare state, and his successor can’t possibly raise taxes high enough to fund it again.”

But Sen. Bradley believes that even this effect may give way when the electorate asks for more federal action on such issues as the environment, education and child care. “It’s a proposition that’s going to be tested in the next two years,” he says, “and my guess is that there will be some revenue increases.”

They (the Soviets) are the focus of evil in the modern world an evil empire.

--Ronald Reagan, March 8, 1983

You are talking about another time, another era.

--Ronald Reagan in Red Square

May 31, 1988

“A funny thing happened to Ronald Reagan on his way to his place in history: He made a sharp left turn six years after he came to office,” says Stephen Ambrose, a historian of American diplomacy. “Now he’s going to be remembered for consolidating detente--the opposite of what he got elected for.”

For six years, Reagan preached a gospel of military strength and declared that he would never make the first concession in negotiations with the Soviet Union. And, for six years, foreign policy was an arena that dealt Reagan more setbacks than successes: a debacle in Lebanon in 1983 that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. servicemen, a misbegotten scheme to sell weapons to Iran in exchange for American hostages, diplomatic stalemates in the Middle East and Central America.

Hard Line Shows Results

At last, in 1987, Reagan’s hard line with Moscow began to show results. Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev agreed to a pact, the first of its kind, to eliminate medium-range nuclear weapons. Reagan, taken by his sudden change of fortune, praised Gorbachev as a new kind of Communist leader--prompting criticism and worry on his own right wing.

“One of the things he’ll be given credit for is for having turned around psychological attitudes about the role of the United States in the world,” predicts historian John Lewis Gaddis. “A nation that is perceived to be weak and begins to perceive itself to be weak begins to find that that has some real world effects. I think the combination of the actual military buildup and the psychological (shift) clearly did have a beneficial impact in influencing the Russians.”

As always, not everyone is convinced. “In the short term, he made Americans feel better about themselves in the world--some Americans, and only in the short term,” Bradley says. “He reversed an impression of weakness or bungling . . . (but) he didn’t provide a vision of where we go from here.”

We lit a prairie fire a few years back. Those flames were fed by passionate ideas and convictions. But we can never let the fire go out or quit the fight, because the battle is never over.

--Ronald Reagan in New Orleans

Aug. 15, 1988

Ronald Reagan hit the American political scene in 1980 with all the effect of the prairie fire he used as a metaphor for his conservative movement. He consumed everything in his path--but a season or two later, much of the impact had been erased.

After Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984, pundits impressed by his ability to win the votes of blue-collar union members (the “Reagan Democrats”) suggested that the electorate might be undergoing a realignment--a fundamental shift in which the Republicans would become the majority party.

But it never happened. Instead, polls show that public attitudes actually moved slightly to the left during the Reagan years--perhaps, some analysts suggest, because of Reagan’s success in halting the growth of government and making the Soviet Union appear less threatening. Many of the blue-collar Democrats who voted twice for Reagan now say they will vote for a Democrat, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

Now, It’s ‘De-Alignment’

“There hasn’t been a realignment,” Sears says. “What there was--and it had been coming for some time--was that the Democrats succeeded in losing control over a big segment of the middle-class vote. It hasn’t come to rest in the Republican Party, but it’s clearly up for grabs. The political scientists have invented a new term for this--de-alignment.”

One reason the Republican Party fell short of realignment, Sears suggests, was that Reagan’s winning program ran out of steam after his first year in office.

“What’s missing--now that Reagan’s done what he said he would do--is, what else?” he says. “What (the GOP) lacks is an agenda of things to do that people can get excited about.”

Instead, Dukakis and the Democrats have stolen much of Reagan’s ground--appealing to the same middle-class voters with a message of fiscal responsibility and patriotic optimism.

“The Democrats are competing on Reagan’s terrain,” says political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg of Cornell University. “Their message now is, ‘Not only are we going to keep your taxes low, we’re going to preserve world peace and be sensitive to social problems.’ ”

Parallels to Reagan

Dukakis’ emphasis on the American dream, on family values and on the nation as a partnership “is right out of the Reagan playbook,” notes John Kenneth White of New York’s Potsdam College.

“The endurance of the Reagan legacy isn’t in the fact that he’s appointed half the nation’s judges or anything like that,” White says. “The Reagan legacy is being given voice today by Dukakis. Just look at his acceptance speech in Atlanta--it was all American values. It could have been given by Ronald Reagan.”