Bill Clinton raised rates but paid for it in the 1994 Republican landslide. His Democratic successor, Barack Obama, would end up repudiating whatever might have been left of Democratic orthodoxy when he extended George W. Bush’s tax cuts through the 2012 election — a sign that Reagan’s worldview was now as permanent a part of the American landscape as FDR’s had been.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were to Ronald Reagan what Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were to Franklin Roosevelt: ratifiers of the order created by a dominant and enduring president whose long shadow casts itself over Washington policies for generations to come. Even today, most voters have come to expect a government that provides FDR’s programs with Reagan’s tax rates. One day that ideological conflict will have to be resolved, but few hazard to guess when that will be.
• The Cold War. No charge worried Reagan’s opponents more, both before and early in his presidency, than the one that cast him as a nuclear cowboy and warmonger. Carter was explicit about this in 1980.
But what happened? The conservative hawk outraged liberal critics by calling nuclear-weapon systems “peacemakers,” by refusing to back down on his missile-defense system, and by disavowing the détente approach favored by Nixon, Ford, and Carter. And while negotiating from a position of strength, Reagan forced the Soviets to enter into deals that helped reduce nuclear arsenals and would eventually lead the United States to victory in the Cold War. He did it by using negotiating skills learned while serving as a liberal Hollywood union leader, starting with a tough bargaining position but gradually finding a way to let his adversary out of the corner.
Of course no single person won the Cold War. What President Kennedy called the “long twilight struggle” required the blood and patience of martyrs behind the Iron Curtain, the bravery of shipyard workers in Gdansk, the quiet witness of the voiceless within the Communist bloc, and the investments of time and treasure made by American presidents of both parties.
But Ronald Reagan did more than any other president to bring a successful end to a conflict that once seemed interminable. The man who had made “détente” a dirty word in Republican politics in the 1970s accomplished more than all the Wise Men and all the realpolitik New Yorkers ever had. And he did it, presidential historian Michael Beschloss said, by making a one-trillion-dollar bet that the Soviet leaders could not keep up with spending levels pushed by an American president who was willing to go all in with such a strategic bet. Reagan was right. The USSR was soon reduced to the ash heap of history.
• Guns. A longtime Second Amendment guy, Reagan showed pragmatism even on the explosive issue of guns. “With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases,” Reagan said on the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt on his life. “And it’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns.”
According to the New York Times, a National Rifle Association official, on hearing of Reagan’s support for the waiting period, gazed at a photo of Reagan on his desk and said, “Don’t do this to me.”
Then, three years later, Ronald Reagan signed a letter supporting a proposed ban on assault weapons. “This is a matter of vital importance to the public safety,” Reagan wrote. “Although assault weapons account for less than 1% of the guns in circulation, they account for nearly 10% of the guns traced to crime. . . . While we recognize that assault-weapon legislation will not stop all assault-weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”
Reagan famously was responsible for the bill’s passage by picking up the phone and calling wavering GOP congressmen. His final call to Wisconsin Republican Scott Klug gave the congressman the courage needed to cast the deciding vote for the legislation. Even out of office, Ronald Reagan’s pragmatic conservatism held sway over swing voters.
In 1985, at the 30th-anniversary dinner for National Review at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Bill Buckley directly addressed his fellow guest, President Ronald Reagan.
“As an individual you incarnate American ideals at many levels,” Buckley said to the president. “As the final responsible authority, in any hour of great challenge, we depend on you.” Buckley was 19 when America dropped the bomb at Hiroshima, he said, and he had just turned 60. “During the interval I have lived a free man in a free and sovereign country, and this only because we have husbanded a nuclear deterrent, and made clear our disposition to use it if necessary. I pray that my son, when he is 60, and your son, when he is 60 . . . will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedoms, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong.”
Four years later, Ronald Reagan would board Marine One to leave the Capitol grounds in the moments after the inauguration of George Herbert Walker Bush for his first journey back to California as a former president. Because Reagan’s blood did run strong, and because he was so wonderfully equipped to ignore the chorus of critics who questioned his judgment and smarts on a daily basis, he could fly westward into the setting sun with the assurance that in his time he had done everything that could be done. “We finished the race; we kept them free; we kept the faith.”
Within months of Reagan’s retirement, the Warsaw Pact’s foundation began cracking apart. Soon after, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet empire collapsed in ruins, and 100 million souls across Europe were set free. Millions of those liberated souls would rightly credit Ronald Reagan for their newfound freedom.
— From the book The Right Path by Joe Scarborough. © 2013 by Joe Scarborough. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.