Ronald Reagan’s legacy is not one of ideological purity. He raised taxes and signed liberal abortion legislation in California. Despite his “evil empire” speech, he was not the preeminent Cold Warrior: Truman and Eisenhower had both fashioned the policy of containment and deterrence. It was Barry Goldwater who laid the foundation of sagebrush conservatism. In contrast, federal spending went up during Reagan’s two presidential terms. It was Reagan, not George W. Bush, who set the precedent of a Republican piling up larger federal deficits than do many Democrats.
And we forget now the various resignations, palace coups, and job switches that occurred during Reagan’s terms in office. Iran-Contra and the withdrawal from Lebanon weakened America’s reputation abroad. Astrology, the sometimes embarrassing confessions of the presidential children, and occasional misstatements about the past did not always reflect bedrock values.
Instead, Reagan’s greatest contributions were more psychological, amounting to nothing less than a reawakening of the American faith in common sense and blunt speech. True, his one-liners sometimes reflected intellectual laziness, but far more often they were insightful ways of cutting through obfuscation to separate truth from lies.
Remember Reagan’s debates against more experienced and conventional politicians that he was supposed to lose? He won them precisely because he showed that his opponents’ purported greater grasp of detail and nuance did not result in real wisdom. In 1980, Jimmy Carter thought that he could rattle the older and supposedly less experienced Reagan by scaring the nation silly over Social Security and nuclear warfare — until Reagan scoffed, “There you go again.” And if that was not enough to crush the sitting president, his closing line — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — surely was. With those two sentences he revealed to the nation a different sort of Jimmy Carter, whose orneriness in fact hid his own incompetence.
Reagan’s uncommon good sense extended to sound judgments about controversial people who were similarly outspoken and principled. He was an early supporter of Pat Moynihan’s courageous efforts to end decades of hypocrisy at the United Nations at a time when even many Republicans still viewed the institution as a sacred cow. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s insightful distinctions between Communists and right-wing dictators won over an unabashedly supportive Reagan. He praised Soviet dissidents — even as a cautious Gerald Ford refused to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
In some cases, Reagan’s blunt words and decisive actions changed the course of both national and global history. In August 1981 the air-traffic controllers’ union assumed it could not only ignore its sworn pledge not to strike, but could shut down the entire American aviation grid if it did not obtain a 100 percent raise. Reagan ignored the conventional wisdom that the union was essential to the American economy, and instead gave the 13,000 federal employees 48 hours to return to work — or else. When 11,400 forfeited their jobs, he sent a message to Americans that he was serious about fighting inflation and holding unions to their word — and showed the world that the Soviets had a tough new negotiator on their hands.