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During the week of mourning for Ronald Reagan’s passing, most of his liberal critics and opponents graciously suppressed their dislike if not contempt–allowing Reagan’s millions of admirers a period of catharsis after his long tragic illness.
But now that, to borrow Edwin Stanton’s words about Lincoln, “he belongs to the ages,” the historical argument that has raged since Reagan left office will resume and intensify. Reagan deserves to be considered alongside Franklin Roosevelt as the most consequential president of the 20th century.
The case for this comparison is simple: Like FDR, he upended the near-monopoly of the other party on the nation’s political life.
Before FDR, Republicans had dominated the White House and Congress for two generations. After FDR, Republicans seldom reached a majority on any level until Reagan, and their few times in the White House with Eisenhower and Nixon saw them govern as mere custodians of the New Deal.
Like FDR, Reagan remade his party in his own image. Reagan began as an insurgent against the GOP establishment; today, the GOP establishment says, “We’re all Reaganites now.” The change Reagan wrought can perhaps be captured by two famous presidential utterances made 32 years apart.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson stood on the hood of a car during a campaign stop in Providence, R.I., and said, “And I just want to tell you this: We’re in favor of a lot of things, and we’re against mighty few.” That’s about as good a single-sentence definition of big government liberalism as you can come up with.
Thirty-two years later, soon after Republicans had made the unthinkable achievement of capturing both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Bill Clinton stood before the nation and said, “The era of big government is over.”
It does not matter so much from a historical point of view that Clinton didn’t mean it.
Of course, he and his party remain committed to big government. But that he felt compelled by political circumstance to articulate such a view is testimony to the effect of Reagan; you could almost see the Gipper’s shadow over Clinton’s shoulder when he made that famous remark.
If Reagan didn’t succeed with all his large objectives, he nonetheless emerges as a more successful political leader than many other great leaders we can think of.
It is a melancholy reflection on the limits of politics that even the greatest and most successful politicians often end their careers with a large note of failure.
Lincoln died with the question mark of reconciliation and reconstruction; Woodrow Wilson left office amid the failure of the League of Nations treaty; FDR died, and Churchill left office, with World War II won, but with the seeds of the Cold War clearly germinating.
Reagan left office with the Cold War still going, and with astronomical budget deficits as far as the eye could see–a seemingly long-term legacy of failure. Yet, within a breathtakingly short time by political standards, the Cold War was over and, before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the nation’s biggest fiscal problem was what to do with its soaring budget surpluses.
Both outcomes lent a large measure of vindication to Reagan’s designs.
His huge budget deficits, biographer Lou Cannon has remarked, now look like the wartime deficits of the final campaign of the Cold War, and therefore as a bargain. Although other leaders at home and abroad deserve their share of the credit for these happy events, it is hard to conceive of their advent without Reagan.
Conservatives still fulminate against FDR because they disagree with his big government philosophy and are angry that he upended Republican dominance, but honest conservatives acknowledge his greatness, nonetheless. Honest liberals who don’t like Reaganism should nonetheless likewise acknowledge his achievement.
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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