JACKSON, Tenn. – June 9, 2004 – Little did Ronald Reagan realize in making “the speech” for Barry Goldwater in 1964 that he too would have a “rendezvous with destiny.” For destiny called Ronald Reagan to end the Cold War and to transform the American party system, the national agenda and the Republican Party itself. For these reasons, Reagan belongs in the pantheon of great presidents.
If for no other reason, history will credit Reagan for winning the Cold War. In a time when Democrats, Republicans and the world talked about peacefully coexisting with communism, Reagan believed that communism was inherently evil because it denied human freedom and dignity and worked to consign it to the “ash heap of history.” Under his leadership, the West confronted communism by placing intermediate range nuclear weapons in Western Europe; challenging the Soviet empire by supporting “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, Central America and Africa; and increasing defense spending and choking off technology transfers to exacerbate an already failing economic and social system. Soon the Soviet Union came to realize that they could not compete with democratic capitalism accelerating the collapse of communism. For this, Europe and the world owe him a debt of gratitude.
Reagan also revolutionized American politics by creating a governing coalition and philosophy to replace the New Deal coalition. For half a century, Democrats dominated politics based on a philosophy of government management of the economy to improve the life of the disadvantaged and built on an electoral coalition of working people, urban minorities and the South. While the coalition began to unravel due to the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the excesses of the Great Society and the counterculture movement, disaffected Democrats had nowhere to go until Reagan. Disaffected Democrats were deservedly leery of a Republican Party controlled by big business and the rich with a visionless conservative wing that opposed all progressive programs and a moderate wing that supported Democratic policies but promised to better manage them.
Then Reagan entered the scene and presented a positive, governing conservative philosophy. He directly challenged the legitimacy of the New Deal coalition persuading people that government was not the solution to America’s problems but the problem itself. If government would only get out of people’s way, ordinary Americans would prosper. Therefore, he proposed a program of lower taxes and less regulation to unleash America’s entrepreneurial spirit, increased defense spending to promote freedom abroad and a public morality to control the excesses of capitalism. This program and his optimistic personality soon restored America’s confidence after the malaise of Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis.
Moreover, he expanded the base of the Republican Party by realigning Southerners and working and middle class families. The emphasis on cutting taxes appealed to the growing middle class who wanted to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The commitment to a strong national defense, traditional morality and a renewed patriotism touched a chord with many Southerners and other working and middle class people who felt the Democratic Party abandoned them and their values. In short, Reagan gave them a reason to call themselves Republicans, laid the foundation for the Republican Revolution in 1994 and expanded the Republican Party into working and middle class communities.
More importantly, Reagan’s influence extended beyond his presidency through his impact on the national agenda. Reagan’s ability to make the public skeptical of government programs continues to undermine proposals for large scale government programs and even led Democratic President Bill Clinton to declare “the era of big government is over.” Even today, President George W. Bush’s policies of tax cuts, a missile defense program, less government regulation and increased defense spending to fight the war on terrorism is a continuation of Reagan policies while Bush’s compassionate conservatism builds upon Reagan Administration ideas such as enterprise zones, welfare to work, school choice and faith based initiatives. Finally, today’s culture wars can be traced in part to Reagan’s endorsement and inclusion of evangelicals in the Republican Party bringing social issues to the forefront of national debate.
For all his triumphs however, he did make mistakes. First, his refusal to insist on budget cuts when cutting taxes tripled the budget deficit leaving succeeding generations with an undue and unnecessary financial burden. Second, his best intentions overcame his natural skepticism in believing that selling arms to Iran would result in the release of American hostages in Lebanon. To compound this error, his lack of bureaucratic oversight allowed a rogue Marine colonel to redirect profits from the arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras undermining our constitutional system of government. Ultimately however, Reagan endeared himself to Americans for taking responsibility for his mistakes, whether it was Iran-Contra or the Beirut Marine barracks bombing.
In the end, Reagan’s presidency was a revolution. He freed millions by winning the Cold War. He revolutionized American politics by making conservatism a legitimate governing philosophy and Republicans the natural party of government. He restored pride and confidence in America and convinced people that a president could be successful. For this, destiny called Reagan, and for this, history will remember him.
by Dr. Sean Evans
Assistant Professor of Political Science