EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the June 28, 2004, issue of National Review.
In remembering Ronald Reagan with affection and pride, recounting his achievements, and recalling the rare qualities of the man himself, conservatives have been, in my view, inadequately defensive. Reagan’s detractors are perfectly happy to concede that he had wit and warmth. They do not dispute his popularity. Some will even admit that Reagan had some involvement in ending the Cold War. They will allow all this because they do not give way on two essential points–the “Reagan Deficits” and “Star Wars”–that, if not checked, they will continue to press in the hope that history will condemn him.
First, his critics believe that even if the military buildup did cause or accelerate the fall of the Soviet Union it was an immoral risk that punished and pauperized the nation, filling its cities with the homeless as in Hogarth’s London (though they miraculously disappeared on the first day of the Clinton presidency), and contributing to the enormous deficit that threatened to ruin the economy and the fiscal underpinnings of the state. Coupled with Reagan’s inhumane opposition to proactive government it was a double disaster. Cutting taxes while at the same time allowing military spending to soar was the act not merely of a conservative, but of a Nero.
For the intelligentsia this is a postulate of faith. That is why, in my daughter’s American history textbook, the eminent authors write, “The combination of tax reduction and huge increases in military spending opened a vast ‘revenue hole’ of $200 billion annual deficits. . . . The staggering deficits of the Reagan years assuredly constituted a great economic failure.” That is why, in the lead story of his death, the AP wrote, “Reagan . . . tripled the national debt to $3 trillion in his singleminded competition with the other superpower.” It is why, in analyzing his legacy, it wrote that because “Reagan powered up the military . . . his shining city was built on a mountain of debt,” and why many learned articles treat of the “Reagan deficit(s)” and the phrase brings 1,200 Google hits.
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