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.
Unlike the supposedly maverick Carter, who in fact surrounded himself with liberal-establishment academics and policy insiders, Reagan not only held a deep distrust of the accepted cargo of American governance — Ivy League education, intimate and long familiarity with Washington and New York, and intellectual pretension — but also deliberately tried to avoid the usual language of diplomatic prevarication. His reduction of complex and nuanced problems into simple equations involving right and wrong infuriated the elites, not because he was necessarily wrong, but precisely because he was so often right and thus called into question the prerequisites of political sagacity. Reagan’s habit was to reduce a dilemma to an easy choice between principle and expediency. His rhetoric was memorable precisely because it flew in the face of conventional wisdom and drew responses like, “He can’t say that.” But of course he could — and did — because “that” was so often true.
We often think that democratic societies are by nature wholly populist, and so distrust snooty experts and vapid intellectuals. In fact, historically speaking, democracies often are vulnerable precisely because the People sometimes feel that they lack the capacity for self-governance without an array of specialists and advisers who know better than they. Thus, in all democratic cultures we occasionally witness the strange spectacle of grandees who masquerade as common men even as they talk down to the unwashed. It is rarer still, however, to see conservative politicians who both distrust the creed of state-enforced egalitarianism and speak plainly to the masses as one of their own.
What, then, is Reagan’s legacy? In some ways, George W. Bush — “the axis of evil” and “smoke ‘em out” — is to Clinton as Reagan was to Carter: the supposedly less capable man displaying a far greater understanding than his predecessor in times of peril. The current idea that volumes of position papers and hordes of professors might not be just superfluous, but downright silly, is Reaganesque to the core.
In the end Reaganism encompassed the very strange ideas that a conservative who wished to cut government entitlements could be more popular with the People than their liberal benefactors; that a wealthy, self-made man could feel more at home with a ranch hand or a policeman than would a Marxist Harvard professor; that an “aw shucks” naif could out-debate the best-prepped policy wonk; and that a Hollywood actor could take the measure of a Soviet apparatchik or a Third World cutthroat far better than the brain trust of the U.S. State Department.
Only in America.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.