What Has Reagan Left Us? The...

We can expect to be delayed in the coming months by appraisals of Ronald Reagan's presidential legacy. It's a big topic, after all, not least because his was the first administration since Ike's to last eight full years. A lot happens in that time; by Inauguration Day, for example, nearly 3,000 editions of this newspaper will have reported events as affected by Reagan's presidency.

It's an absorbing topic too. As a nation, we seem to have changed in significant ways--our ideas, values, expectations--during the '80s, and surely these alterations have something to do with the man in the Oval Office. But there's a bit of a mystery about it. Reagan is known to be a detached, easygoing, non-intellectual sort who depends on others more than his predecessors did and more, perhaps, than he ought. Why then does he cast such a long shadow? How could such a person have changed us?

For scholars and journalists in particular, these questions hold nearly obsessive fascination. Ronald Reagan embodies qualities that most of them find alien, and many changes that occurred during his presidency are--from their standpoint--so unwelcome that many feel an irresistible impulse to ply the tools of their trades and write about them. Besides, what else is there to write about? That shadow really is immense.

Hence the stock-taking has begun, indeed is well enough along that substantial volumes are making their way into print months before Reagan vacates his office.

Political scientist Charles O. Jones rounded up a dozen fellow scholars to produce a solid, generally balanced and often insightful collection of essays. These are grouped into separate sections on political institutions and processes, domestic and foreign policies, and "big picture" perspectives.

While they have no common theme, most of the authors do seem to agree on this: Despite many failures and defeats on specific elements of Reagan's programmatic agenda (e.g. the line-item veto, Contra aid, school prayer, etc.), despite the scandals and embarrassments that rocked his administration, he has redefined the terms of American politics and government.

"When it comes to the substance of his public philosophy," writes James W. Ceasar of the University of Virginia, "it is clear that Reagan has succeeded for the moment in making his program the 'base' of American political discourse. Just as candidates once defined their position by reference to the New Deal, they now define themselves by reference to the Reagan Revolution."

Nor was this accomplishment a fluke. Persistence, stubbornness, and resolution with respect to big issues and overall direction mark Reagan's basic character, note several contributors, combined with a remarkable willingness to compromise on the specifics.

There is even some suggestion that the President's celebrated aversion to the details of policy, sometimes even to the facts, while leaving him vulnerable to tactical blunders, nonetheless freed him to focus on general strategy--and to elude personal culpability for mistakes made by his detail squad.

In an "anti-leadership system," Aaron Wildavsky observes in the penetrating essay that closes this collection, Reagan has been a "meteoric" leader. "No other postwar President redirected both domestic and foreign policy in his desired direction while gaining reelection and keeping his party united."

The volume of essays edited by Sidney Blumenthal and Thomas Byrne Edsall is jazzier, cattier and less balanced, perhaps because the contributors are all journalists, many of them regulars on the "Reagan beat."

Several have penned superb analyses. William Schneider's long essay on "the political legacy of the Reagan years" is itself worth the purchase price. And many of Gov. Michael Dukakis' campaign predicaments are easier to understand in the context of Robert Kuttner's shrewd explanation of the pickle in which Reaganism has left liberalism. John Judis deserves reading for his appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of American conservatism at the end of the Reagan era. And David Ignatius supplies a provocative account of the Soviet-American "role reversal" that has recently occurred in international affairs (as "Reagan and Shultz seemed increasingly to be the stodgy oldsters and the Gorbachev team the impulsive youngsters").

The last two essays in the book, however, are deeply biased. Lincoln Caplan bitterly concludes that the Reagan Administration undermined the nation's devotion to the "rule of law"--but what really seems to bug him is that the President didn't calmly embrace established precedents, either procedural or substantive. Caplan evidently forgot that the Administration's goal was to make non-incremental changes in a great many policies and practices that others supposed were immutable.

Co-editor Blumenthal ends the volume with a catty discussion of Reaganism and the "neokitsch aesthetic" that positively drips with disdain for the President, his family (son Ron appears often in this essay, generally clad only in his drawers) and his crowd. The President's essential failing, according to Blumenthal? "His ideal of beauty was uninspiring."

Given the number of salient issues that neither of these volumes takes up, we should begin to brace for the avalanche ahead. As the topics grow ever more specialized, however, we'll need periodically to return for orientation to the large issues and general themes essayed in these early books, to such powerful realities as the pincer in which the Reagan era has placed its successors in regard to federal spending, with a huge deficit gaping on one side and fear of tax increases looming on the other.

There is no longer fiscal slack with which to launch new programs, nor do the politics of the immediate post-Reagan period seem likely to permit much to accumulate. Like it or not, that alone is about as weighty a legacy as any President could leave behind. And it's only part of Reagan's.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°