By David B. Kopel
June 08, 2004, 10:03 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Reagan.
Where will Ronald Reagan rank among American presidents? If ranked accurately, he'll be near the very top, along with Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson.
The popularity of former presidents can be quite variable. Like Ronald Reagan, George Washington's final two years in office were not particularly successful, and his popularity declined. Yet as partisan warfare between Adams and Jefferson doomed the Founders' hope that political parties would not dominate American politics, the non-partisan Washington gained standing for his numerous accomplishments, and his shortcomings were largely forgotten.
During Harry Truman's second term, his popularity ratings set record lows not surpassed until shortly before Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Yet during the Nixon presidency, much of the American public discovered a new respect for the plain-speaking, blunt man from Missouri — a welcome contrast to the pathological mendacity of Lyndon Johnson and his successor.
Today, Reagan and John F. Kennedy rank as our two most admired former presidents. This indicates beyond any doubt that opinion polls should not be the final arbiter of a president's greatness. Kennedy's presidency was tremendously inspiring to many Americans, and his accomplishments are not insubstantial: a major tax cut, a significant build-up of conventional and nuclear forces, the beginning of the race to the moon, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But at least a third of American presidents have records of accomplishment far more extensive.
As we rank presidents, we should evaluate them on their own terms: An Anglophile should not downgrade James Madison because he defied the British Empire; an inflationist should not downgrade William McKinley because he preserved the gold standard; and a libertarian should not downgrade Franklin Roosevelt because he promoted affirmative government. A person may legitimately disagree with the policies of any of these presidents, but for ranking purposes the most neutral approach is to consider how successful they were in promoting their own visions.
The world of 2004 is very different from the world of 1980, and no man deserves more credit for the positive changes than Ronald Reagan. In shaping foreign affairs, domestic policy, his political party, and the American character, Reagan was among the most successful of all presidents. In none of these categories does he rank at the very top, but he was among the greatest in all of them.
When Ronald Reagan took oath in January 1980, America was a declining power. In Central America, totalitarian allies of Fidel Castro had conquered Nicaragua. Abandoning their promises to protect civil liberty, the Sandinistas were creating a Stalinist state in which the Communist party would be the living God in the "liberation theology" of a servile state church. Other Communists were fighting a war for the same goal in Central America. In 1983, a hard-line Stalinist seized power in a coup in Grenada. Today, Latin America is freer than it has been since the days before the Incas, the Aztecs, and the Spanish Empire. The region still has a long way to go, but these days Fidel Castro is generally understood as a relic of a terrible past rather than an avatar of the new Latin America.
President Truman had initiated the policy of containment to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding its evil empire, and to force Communism to collapse from its internal contradictions. Ford and Carter abandoned the policy, however, allowing nation after nation to fall to Soviet control. Nixon's policy of détente had been embraced and extended so widely that the American political élite was making policy based on the permanence of Soviet power, taking for granted a bipolar world in which many hundreds of millions of people would live indefinitely under the Soviet boot.
Ronald Reagan was among the very few visionaries who foresaw a better world. Challenging the Soviets to an arms race, halting Soviet expansionism everywhere, and reasserting the moral superiority of freedom in language evocative of Churchill and Kennedy, Reagan destroyed the evil empire, bringing Truman's vision to fruition.
In terms of expanding American power, Reagan ranks only behind Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase) and Polk (the annexation of Texas and the Southwest). He ranks equal to Franklin Roosevelt (defeating the Axis) and ahead of Madison (fighting the British to a draw).
Reagan's Mideast policies were a failure. He continued the Carter policy of attempting to negotiate with the tyrants in Iran; he emboldened Hezbollah by letting them drive America out of Lebanon as the nation was conquered by Syria; and he warmed America's already over-friendly relationships with the Wahhabi despots in Saudi Arabia. Today's war on terror must be fought in part because of the U.S. State Department's three-decade-long accommodation of Arab tyranny. In the Middle East, unlike in Europe or Latin America, Reagan continued the bipartisan consensus policies of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations — and in retrospect, these policies failed.
Reagan also went too far in coddling anti-Communist dictators such as Marcos in the Philippines and the generals in Argentina (until the Falklands War). These policies reduced America's long-term influence and power, though not with such catastrophic results as the coddling of Mideast dictators.
Even the most successful foreign-policy presidents have notable failures. Although Truman created the policy of containment, his State Department inadvertently caused the Korean War by signaling that South Korea was outside the American sphere of defense. President George H.W. Bush gave Iraq similar signals about Kuwait. In accommodating Stalin at Yalta and allowing the government to be infiltrated at the highest levels by Soviet agents such as Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and (probably) Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt helped create long-term perils to America much worse than Reagan created in the Mideast.
Washington, Madison, Lincoln, and FDR were the only presidents to steer America through crises in which national survival was genuinely in doubt. Accordingly, Reagan's accomplishments in foreign affairs cannot rank as high as these four. But he should rank immediately after them. Truman created containment, and his next three successors practiced it. But it was Reagan who prophetically saw that the time had come to tighten containment and finally destroy Soviet Communism. Like Roosevelt, he destroyed an evil empire whose ultimate goal was to enslave America.
Reagan's new paradigm in foreign affairs far outshines the baby steps toward imperialism begun by McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Only Wilson and Reagan attempted an audacious reformation of the international system, and Wilson's foreign policy was a disaster. Nixon and Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger tried a milder transformation of the global system, but Reagan aimed for an entirely different and more significant transformation — and he achieved it.
Domestically, Reagan's most enduring success was in tax policy. When he took office, the top federal tax rate was an abusive 70 percent — a rate sure to discourage entrepreneurship by unfairly confiscating well over half the earnings of creative risk-takers. Reagan left office having lowered the top rate to 28 percent. Although it crept back up to nearly 40 percent under the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, America's entrepreneurs today know that the government will take no more than half the fruits of their labor.
By making sure that the top 10 percent of income earners received a fair share of the tax relief, Reagan guaranteed that the people most likely to create jobs, invent new products, and promote economic growth could look forward to enjoying the fruits of their labor rather than being discouraged by the prospect of envy-based confiscation. One of the longest economic booms in American history resulted.
In this regard, Ronald Reagan was a worthy successor to John F. Kennedy, who lowered the top rate from 90 percent to 70 percent. Moreover, the Reagan and Kennedy tax cuts made the tax system fairer by removing punitive levels of taxation based on malicious envy.
Reagan's economic vision and the success of his policies moved the entire American political and economic paradigm many large steps in the free-market direction. The Democratic party, post-Reagan, celebrates free markets; and modern Democrats are, as the Green party rightly points out, very different from the 1970s party that pushed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill through Congress, promising that government would be an employer of last resort.
Domestically, Reagan significantly reduced the size of the federal government in his first term. Unfortunately, though, he tended to cut programs rather than eliminate them, and today most of the programs he cut in his 1981 budget are larger and more intrusive than ever before. Reagan was much more timid than his hero Jefferson in terminating federal programs.
Like Jefferson, Reagan did not succeed in erecting new safeguards to constrain future government growth. Because Reagan's tax cuts did unleash tremendous economic growth, Reagan did not in the long run reduce net federal revenues available for spending. Indeed, his pro-growth economic policies raised revenues, making more money available for the appropriators and regulators.
Welfare reform under Reagan was confined to small, tepid steps, and the promise to abolish the Department of Education was abandoned for lack of Congressional support. As a result, federal interference with education today is worse than ever.
Even so, in tens of thousands of different ways, the men and women Reagan brought into federal service made the federal government less burdensome to the American people. Government control of political speech in the media in the form of the "fairness doctrine" was abolished, allowing AM radio stations to begin employing hosts who specialized in political commentary.
But Reagan's domestic legacy was seriously tarnished by the massive escalation of the so-called war on drugs. Part of this war on American citizens was begun as a public-relations strategy to enhance Nancy Reagan's image. But part of the war stemmed from the genuinely authoritarian impulses of many members of the Reagan team. The consequences for Fifth Amendment property rights, Fourth Amendment privacy rights, Second Amendment arms rights, and Tenth Amendment states rights have been horrible. As with Reagan's errors in the Middle East, the awful consequences of his drug policies continue to harm America.
Jefferson imposed his oppressive Embargo; Jackson sent the Civilized Tribes on the Trail of Tears; Lincoln imprisoned and attempted to execute by court martial law-abiding Copperheads; and Roosevelt interred American citizens in concentration camps. Reagan's drug war takes its place beside these infamous abuses of civil liberties, and reminds us that even presidents with a deep affection for American traditions of freedom can be blind to their own ideals. These terrible policies underscore the importance of continuing to remind President Bush that creating a total surveillance state is the wrong way to confront Islamofascism.
On economic policy, there have been many presidents who shared Reagan's principles of reducing the burden of federal government. Harding dismantled much — but not enough — of the regulatory state created by Wilson and the progressives. Coolidge cut taxes, as did Kennedy. Cleveland crushed rampant inflation, as did Reagan. Jefferson eliminated a much larger fraction of unneeded federal programs than Reagan did.
Like Coolidge and Kennedy, Reagan had to fight tough political battles to pass his tax cuts. But this political effort pales in comparison to the epic struggle of Jackson and Buren to eliminate the monstrous Second Bank of the United States. The web of corruption spun by bank president Nicholas Biddle reached deep into Congress, and Biddle pushed the country into a depression in a final campaign to preserve the bank. Yet Jackson stayed the course, as did Van Buren. As a result, the central government's ability to manage the economy for political purposes was greatly reduced, a legacy that endured until the creation of the Federal Reserve in the early 20th century.
In his domestic-policy legacy, Reagan is outranked by Jefferson and by Jackson and Van Buren, as well as by Lincoln, FDR, and Johnson, who promoted gigantic increases in federal power that remain largely in place today.
Lincoln and FDR turned their political parties into majority parties for decades to come. Reagan began but did not finish such a transformation for the Republicans. That transformation is still in progress, as President Bush works to nudge a 50-50 nation into a Republican majority.
What Reagan did complete was the transformation of the Republican party into a conservative party. One might compare this change to Eisenhower's turning the Republicans into internationalists rather than isolationists, or FDR's turning the Democrats into the party of vigorous federal government.
Rhetorically, Wilson aimed high, but today his "war to end all wars" is rightly regarded as a tragic delusion. FDR inspired the American people when their national morale was at its lowest; Reagan likewise led America to regain its confidence as the shining city on a hill — the beacon of freedom for all mankind. The "national malaise" of Carter was replaced by the renewed confidence of the Reagan era.
Today, America is the world's hyperpower. In many ways, not even the Roman Empire had the international standing of the American colossus. Our power has three foundations, all of which are more to the credit of Ronald Reagan than any other man of the 20th century: a vibrant, free economy, which was unshackled by Reagan's tax cuts; the elimination of our only geopolitical opponent and its transformation into a sometimes friend; and the confidence of the American people that our freedom is not just a lifestyle choice but a blessing from the Almighty meant to become a blessing for all mankind.
Reagan clearly ranks as the greatest president of the last half-century. Although he did not shape America's national destiny as much as did Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, he has earned a place with Jefferson and Jackson in the second-highest rank of American presidents.
The sun has set on Ronald Reagan, but it is still morning in America. His legacy is a new dawn of American freedom and might that continues to shine the light of liberty all over the world.