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Reagan Reconsidered

Reviewed by Yitzhak Klein

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris; and Ronald Reagan,
by Dinesh D'Souza



As D’Souza shows, Reagan’s policies persuaded Soviet leaders that the Cold War could not go on. For the first time since World War II, the latter found themselves caught between the anvil of limited economic resources and the hammer of an implacable American foe working actively to bring their rule to an end. The result was Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. Though intended to save the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s policies sent an unambiguous signal to the Communist nomenklatura: The Cold War had been lost, and the Soviet Union’s economic and political system had lost it. The world Communist order was never to be. Complete disillusionment and the end of Communism followed.
D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan does not try to portray Reagan as a master of the particulars of policy. What made Reagan great was his ability to set straightforward and common-sense goals, prosecuting an unconcealed and tenacious campaign against America’s totalitarian enemy, in the face of a conventional wisdom that assumed that Soviet totalitarianism and the Soviet command economy were as viable as liberal democracy. For many American politicians and pundits, Reagan’s strategy was too simplistic to work, and its author too simple a man to lead. History proved both assumptions wrong.
D’Souza devotes equal space in his book to attempting to demonstrate that the remarkable expansion of the American economy, which began with the Reagan administration, was similarly the result of Reagan’s “simple” vision and consistent leadership. The foundation of Reagan’s approach to reviving the American economy was his faith in the creativity and drive of Americans, and his skepticism about the government’s ability to accomplish more than the efforts of millions of individuals. “Reagan believed intellectuals have no right to attempt to plan or manage the economy,” D’Souza writes. “Reagan held the view that individuals are the creative force in a society and should be given a greater control over their own destiny…. The main objective of Reagan’s economic policies was to create an environment in which the innovative energy of entrepreneurs could be unleashed.” The United States had all the resources it needed to resume rapid, inflation-free economic growth. Only government meddling, in the form of excessive regulation and high tax rates—in some cases as high as 70 percent of income—prevented the resumption of growth by depriving Americans of the incentive to innovate and work hard.
On his first day in office in 1981, Reagan signed an order ending price controls on oil and gasoline. Energy prices plummeted, and the “energy crisis”—now revealed as an artifact of federal regulation—came to an end. Over the next eight years, Reagan pushed through Congress two radical overhauls of the federal income tax. The first slashed tax rates, while the second eliminated numerous loopholes and vastly simplified the tax code. Lower costs, lower taxes and less regulation led to faster and more consistent economic growth. Inflation fell from 12.4 percent in 1980 to 4.6 percent in 1989, and unemployment dropped from 7.2 percent to 5.3 percent. The GDP grew during the years 1981-1989 at an average annual rate of 3.4 percent. The median income in America, which had actually declined under Carter, rose by 15 percent in real terms between 1980 and 1989. And contrary to what is often claimed, the poor did not “get poorer” under Reagan: The average real income of the poorest fifth of the population increased by over 7 percent.
These remarkable achievements had a price. Reagan’s tax cuts, combined with a steep increase in defense spending, caused the federal budget deficit to swell from about $50 billion in 1980 to over $200 billion in 1989. This outcome could hardly have pleased Reagan, a lifelong advocate of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. D’Souza argues that political constraints forced Reagan to compromise on fiscal policy. His first priority was to cut taxes; his second was to ensure that America’s defense budget was restored to adequate size. He sacrificed his third priority, a balanced budget, in order to achieve the first two.
In Reagan’s “simple” worldview, high taxation and government meddling in the economy were not only imprudent but morally wrong, robbing the people of the fruits of their labor. Contemplating America’s current budgetary surplus, a direct result of the rise in the American economy’s growth rate since 1983, one is tempted to say that Reagan’s “simple” view has been vindicated again. Reagan certainly listened to, even if he never overtly endorsed, the arguments of a small group of “supply-side” economists who predicted that this is precisely what would happen. Reagan’s unconventional economic policies have become the new conventional wisdom, advocated by left-of-center politicians such as President Bill Clinton.
 
D’Souza’s most important contribution, however, is his portrayal of Reagan’s special political gifts. Most American intellectuals and journalists failed to appreciate them. They believed a leader should be erudite, beholden to enlightened taste and, above all, expert in the ins and outs of Washington; in every respect, Reagan was the opposite. Rather than accept that a great leader may simply be able to do without these things—that is, that he really does not have to be very much like them—many commentators came up with alternate explanations of the Reagan years. The most prominent theory, which D’Souza calls the “battle for the president’s mind,” asserted that pragmatists such as Secretary of State George Shultz and White House Chief-of-Staff James Baker successfully seized control of American policy from “true believers” such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Attorney-General Ed Meese. D’Souza refutes this supposition by analyzing a number of Reagan’s policy decisions. On domestic and foreign policy alike, Reagan consistently surrounded himself with divergent viewpoints, listened to all of them, and then made all the crucial decisions himself on the basis of his fundamental principles. On the most important matters, it was Reagan who was in charge all along.
D’Souza confirms Edmund Morris’ portrayal of Reagan’s intellect. Reagan was not a president who devoured long, complex position papers. (Jimmy Carter was his opposite in this respect, demonstrating how little an abundance of information avails when unaccompanied by the perspective to understand its significance or the strength of character to act forcefully.) He was not unread, though, and D’Souza relates biographer Lee Edwards’ description of Reagan’s library, full of good books heavily annotated. Reagan’s intellect lent itself to the adoption of firm, educated points of view on the broadest and most important questions. Thus Reagan never lacked an inner moral and mental light, by which to evaluate the issues that crossed his path and to guide his decision making. This inner light was the key to his own vision, to his disinterest in the details of policy except as seen in light of that vision, and his willingness to compromise in other areas to ensure that his few essential goals were pursued with full force. “It is impossible to lead,” writes D’Souza, “if you are unsure about where you want to go. Vision is a function of perceptive power, but it relies less on academic intelligence than on moral imagination.”
Though D’Souza does not use the term, he credits Reagan with what is sometimes called right reason: True and firm moral convictions coupled with good judgment. From small issues, such as the decision to withdraw America’s support for the Law of the Sea treaty in 1981 because it curtailed private property in the resources of the seabed, to large ones, such as his conclusion that neglecting to develop defenses against nuclear weapons was immoral, Reagan demonstrated that his policy was determined by a sense of what was best, rather than what was expedient or expected. He made costly mistakes—such as the deployment of U.S. Marines in Beirut, and the sale of arms to Iran in an effort to secure the release of hostages—but the quality of most of his decisions testifies to the quality of the values that governed them.
Particularly enlightening is D’Souza’s description of the use Reagan made of public-opinion polls. Unlike most politicians, who let the polls determine their positions on key issues, Reagan used polling data to determine where and how he had to use his considerable powers of persuasion to bring a majority of the electorate around to his view. As D’Souza writes, Reagan recognized “that public opinion on any issue is usually inchoate and unformed…. His approach was not to consult the electorate on what to do in every situation, but rather to presume that he reflected the shared values of the people. Given the facts, he made his best judgment and acted. Then he made his case to the public….” Thus Reagan was a leader who led, as opposed to many elected “leaders” who merely follow the public’s fleeting opinions.
The convictions that lay at the heart of Reagan’s decision making also underlay his unique relationship with the American electorate. His greatest disagreement lay with those who thought America evil, perverse or a mindless “system” that crushed its citizens. Reagan had a positive opinion of his fellow countrymen. He thought they embodied the values he shared with them, of liberty, fairness, enterprise and a sense of right and wrong. He exhorted them to take pride in their values and live up to them. For their part, they could see him putting those values to work in office, and most of them approved. Perhaps Reagan’s greatest contribution to the United States was that he encouraged people to believe, with him, that traditional American values were good. He imbued his supporters with the courage of their convictions.
Ronald Reagan possessed an uncommon array of political gifts—traditional virtues, firm convictions, self-confidence, determination and a consummate ability to persuade—which enabled him to do more for his country than many people thought possible. Like all great democratic leaders, however, Reagan will be remembered not merely for his achievements, or for his personal talents, but chiefly for those qualities he was able to bring out in his fellow countrymen. Reagan’s legacy is best captured by the words of Richard Rorty, one of America’s leading leftist intellectuals, who said the following in a 1997 lecture at Harvard University:
National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: A necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.... Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in.
In free countries, there is no shortage of people who would portray their society in the worst possible terms. They imbue their fellow citizens with self-doubt, which more than anything else undermines the nation’s ability to preserve liberty within, and to stand firm in the face of despotic adversaries without. This happened to the United States and other Western countries a generation ago, and in recent years the State of Israel has become afflicted by the same malady. Reagan’s legacy to democracies the world over is that a society built on freedom and a firm moral sense can be a source of pride for its citizens, and that such well-founded pride is the key to resolving the challenges, whatever their nature, that democracies confront. Americans turned their society around by reaffirming their belief in their own values, traditions and achievements. One hopes that the Jewish state, now plunged in self-doubt about the meaning and worth of its own values and traditions, will learn to do the same.

Yitzhak Klein is a public policy analyst, and a Contributing Editor of Azure.


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