I came of age in the eighties, and so Ronald Reagan was the first president I had meaningful opinions about. Those opinions were less than flattering, I assure you. Everything bad about the ’80s I associated with Reaganism: the exaggerated Communist menace; fake tax cuts for the rich; the return to ’50s family values and the importance of the nuclear family, over against the creative and transgressive individualism of the ’70s. All of this permeated outside the realm of politics — into art, film, TV, and music. From the age of 12 to 20 I took in these evils, as I saw them, and lamented not growing up in the more liberating decades of the ’60s and ’70s; under any other president (except Nixon).
My parents, friends, like-minded liberals, and I thought Reagan was a war-monger, out for communist blood at every turn. He made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was a crook; the televised Iran-Contra hearings made it plain. And he was a fascist above all, escalating the war on drugs to insane levels. If you had asked me to score Reagan when he left office back in ’89, on the scale I’m using throughout this president series, I would have thrown him no more than 3 out of 20 points each for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty — for a total grade of perhaps 9/60; a lousy president indeed. And that’s pretty much how Ivan Eland grades him in Recarving Rushmore: peace 2, prosperity 5, and liberty 3, for 10/60, which puts Reagan down in the presidential cellar at #35.
More recently, my opinions of Reagan have undergone something of a reassessment. Not only is he not as bad as I once thought, he ranks in the top half of my list. When this series is finally done, he will place at #18 (as an “average” president).
It’s hard to be objective about Reagan because he’s enshrined in so much myth — sort of like FDR. Roosevelt had been his hero before ’62 (when Reagan converted to Republicanism), and it showed in some of the ways he mimicked FDR, like with charismatic one-liners. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” became embedded in our ’80s conscious like Roosevelt’s, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Like FDR, Reagan is venerated by fans and demonized by foes. I just gave you the demonic Reagan I believed in growing up.
I will assess the trio of Reagan myths, in their positive and negative spins, and try to get at what the “real Reagan” did for causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.
1. Foreign Policy
The first myth, in its positive spin, is that Reagan won the Cold War. The counter myth, held by enemies, is that he was a war-monger. Neither is true.
(a) The Cold War
Like Carter before him, Reagan believed that Communism was an immoral system that crushed people’s liberties, and was bound to implode. He was right about this, and so it’s astonishing that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions to just let the Soviet empire to collapse on its own. Instead he reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets (one of Nixon’s rare commendable foreign achievements) and raised the specter of nuclear war. Yet for all his strident anti-Soviet rhetoric, Reagan didn’t “win” the Cold War.
The Soviet Union collapsed because of its overextension and lousy economy. That economy had begun to weaken as early as the ’60s; by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is an inherently dysfunctional system because it gives no one any incentive to produce anything of value. The Soviet empire was bound to fail, no matter who was in charge, with or without an arms race like the one Reagan conducted. This was something Dwight Eisenhower understood: possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War; communism not only made people poor, it kept them poor forever and ate its own tail. It’s a tragedy that presidents after Eisenhower didn’t just wait out the Soviet Union — to know that capitalism would triumph over communism without resorting to huge amounts of military spending in order to “contain” communism. Excessive military spending, in any case, undermines investment in the civilian economy which is critical to a healthy republic.
Eisenhower was a prophet, and in mid-1989 (well after Reagan left office in January, and shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November), Gorbachev faced the music. The Red Army and $40 billion in annual subsidies could no longer prop up and stabilize Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Two and a half years later (in December 1991) the Soviet Empire dissolved. This outcome had naught to do with Reagan; his military buildup didn’t accelerate that slide. According to Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, “The idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviets into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The now-open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet-defense spending offensive.” The Soviets collapsed because they kept over-extending themselves into breadbasket countries; they had been declining since the ’60s, and kept declining during the ’80s — regardless of any provocation from the U.S.
(b) War on other fronts
And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched missions elsewhere. He attacked Libya in ’81. He sent forces to Lebanon in ’82. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops in October ’83. (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders tend to beat a hasty retreat.) His invasion of Grenada two days later followed as a diversion from the Lebanon fiasco: a “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; there was actually no viable threat in that region at all. Later in ’86, he picked another fight with Gaddafi in Libya. The common wisdom is that Reagan “put Gaddafi back in his box” and made him give up terrorism, but Gaddafi just went underground and used proxy groups to keep terrorizing. Prior to Reagan’s provocations, Gaddafi focused on non-U.S. targets, but now he began targeting Americans, resulting in the 1988 bombing of U.S.-bound flight Pan Am 103. (I attended Bishop Guertin High School with Steve Boland, one of the victims on the flight.)
Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but it made little sense for Reagan to go after him, especially when he was hypocritically supporting Islamic jihadists who were far worse. Continuing where Jimmy Carter left off, Reagan kept funding the mujaheddin (Islamic guerilla fighters) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting Islamism to fight the Soviets who had invaded. Out of that manipulative mess, of course, would step Osama Bin Laden.
In spite of all this, however, Reagan was no war-monger. He only looks that way in the wake of Ford and Carter, who had pursued policies of remarkable restraint. When compared to the Johnson and Nixon eras, and the most recent Bush and Obama eras, Reagan emerges as a surprisingly moderate interventionist. Under him, at least, we weren’t bogged down in an equivalent to the Southeast Asian or Middle-East fiascos that drained the American economy and got outrageously high numbers of peoples slaughtered for no good reason.
For that matter, even when compared to his successor, Reagan doesn’t look too terrible. The elder Bush began a downward spiraling of events to which there would be no end in sight. He planted a permanent military presence on the ground in the Persian Gulf, and we’re still reaping the consequences of that decision today. Reagan, for all his serious “war faults”, was neither a war monger like Johnson and Nixon, nor a hawk like both Bushes and Obama.
2. Domestic Policy
The second myth is that Reagan was a fiscal conservative, cut of the same cloth as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. There is less to this claim than meets the eye.
In fact, Reagan was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton (both Democrats, ironically), and he spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As economists often point out, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either (a) the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), (b) government borrowing has to increase, or (c) the government has to print money to cause inflation. Any of these methods rob the productive sector. Also, because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting mostly the rich.
There is irony here, considering Reagan’s president of choice: Calvin Coolidge. He placed Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and looked to Coolidge as a model. Coolidge is indeed a superb role model, as was Warren Harding before him. Both Harding and Coolidge gave America the Roaring Twenties prosperity, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since. Reagan aspired to be like these men but fell short. He cut taxes like they did, but only Harding and Coolidge also cut federal spending, without which, again, tax cuts are meaningless. Of all post-World War II Republican presidents, Reagan actually ended up having the least annual net tax cuts as a percentage of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He simply raised taxes in less conspicuous portions of the government revenue stream, giving major tax increases in all but two years of an eight-year presidency. Frankly, I marvel at “conservatives” who make taxes their single-voting issue, but are then very easily duped by sly, unobtrusive tax increases and federal spending as a portion of GDP. Reagan increased federal spending at an average of 2.5% per year.
In contrast, Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Clinton all reduced federal spending as a percentage of GDP. (They were the only 20th-century presidents to do this.) To be fair, Harding, Eisenhower, and Clinton had the advantage of being presidents serving right after a war or cold war had ended, which obviously allowed them more freedom in spending cuts. But they could have easily done what other post-war presidents do, by simply redirecting military spending to government initiatives. They didn’t.
In short: Reagan’s defense spending, fake tax cuts, and vast accumulation of government debt puts to bed the myth of his fiscal conservatism. By the time the elder Bush took office, his administration was complaining loudly that Reagan’s sins had over-stressed the budget. It’s funny that Reagan had always derided those who wanted a free lunch. That’s precisely what he gave himself by slashing taxes while spending to his heart’s content. He left a deficit mess for Bush and Clinton to clean up, which Clinton did. As Alan Greenspan later said: “The hard truth was that Reagan had borrowed from Clinton, and Clinton had to pay it back.”
There is no denying the ’80s prosperity, and the thanks goes largely to the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker (under Carter and Reagan), and then Alan Greenspan (under Reagan’s final two years), two budget hawks who sucked inflation out of the system with tight money policies. Jimmy Carter deserves the foremost credit for hiring Volcker to begin with (and infuriating the Democrats so badly that it killed his chances at a second term). But Reagan deserves plenty of credit too. He kept Volcker on for six years, despite protests from his inner circle. He allowed Volcker (and then Greenspan) to do their dirty but necessary work of tight money policies.
In other words, the ’80s were prosperous because of Reagan, but also despite him. The Fed was kept under a conservative management while the executive worked at liberal purpose.
The third myth says that Reagan’s scandals have been exaggerated. Others say the opposite, that Reagan was an anti-liberty fascist. Neither is true.
(a) The Iran-Contra Scandal
I don’t believe in blowing administrative scandals out of proportion unless they really need to be. Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding, for example, have been way over-maligned. Their graft scandals had to do with money-grubbing greed, not constitutional treachery. Neither Grant nor Harding were implicated in their scandals; they were ultimately responsible for appointing some dishonest men. So what? Name a single presidential administration that doesn’t have problems like that.
But unlike the graft scandals of Grant and Harding, the Watergate scandal of Nixon and the Iran-Contra scandal of Reagan amounted to serious constitutional offenses. The Nixon administration tried using security agencies to spy on people and cover up its dirty tricks. The Regan administration violated a criminal law and its own international arms embargo by selling weapons at high prices to a terrorist sponsoring nation (Iran), in order to ransom hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. Even aside from the criminality, this was a shockingly bad policy decision, as it simply led to the kidnapping of more hostages. It also gave lie to Reagan’s claims that he didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Reagan then used the inflated proceeds from the sales they made to Iran to violate an explicit congressional ban on providing assistance to the Contra rebels, who were trying to overthrow the Sandinista Marxists in Nicaragua. Funding a secret war in violation of a congressional ban is an assault on the American checks and balances system, and it emasculates Congress of its most important power: to direct where federal money is spent.
In sum, Reagan broke international law and usurped Congress’ power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it. That’s a very serious offense, and I remember the day this all went public — Thanksgiving Eve in ’86. By May ’87 Reagan had owned up to the fact that the Iran-Contra affair was all his idea.
(b) The Drug War
The second major stain on Reagan’s liberty record involves another comparison to Nixon, who had launched the drug war in June ’71. The drug war was scaled back in the Carter years (Carter had favored the decriminalization of marijuana), and then Reagan zealously escalated the war, starting a long period of relentless incarceration. The drug war represents one of the worst liberty assaults in America’s history. Aside from free speech, there is no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. Ruining the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, is alone an embarrassing national failure. That we make room for these people in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters is obscene.
The public was brainwashed into accepting the obscenity throughout the ’80s, thanks mostly to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine (“crack”), and also to Nancy Reagan’s widely publicized anti-drug campaign. By the end of Reagan’s two terms, polls showed that (yes) 64% of Americans saw drug abuse as the nation’s number one problem. Seriously.
(c) Martin Luther King Day
The drug war and Iran-Contra Affair so permeated our consciousness in the ’80s that it seemed almost impossible to put “Reagan” and “liberty” in the same sentence without negative qualifiers. But it turns out that Reagan did significant things for the cause of liberty. First he approved Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday (though he had initially opposed it), signing it into effect on November 2, 1983. It went to effect three years later, in January ’86, and has been since celebrated as a federal holiday every January. Equally important is what this triggered on the state level. Prior to ’83, only 13 states (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, and California) observed MLK Day. With the federal holiday signed into law, Reagan started a domino effect of state acceptance. Watch the domino effect play out on this map. Increasing numbers of schools closed to celebrate the holiday, and more government employees got paid leave. There was increased awareness of racial injustice.
Reagan also signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants. This is sometimes swept under the rug by modern Reaganites who are hostile to immigration, but it is to Reagan’s immense credit that he supported immigrants to this degree. From an American perspective, of course, welcoming immigrants is a mark of enlightened thinking. The nation was founded by immigrants and has prided itself on being open to diversity. But even from the more mercenary perspective, immigration has always been the life’s blood of the U.S., infusing new ideas and skills into the market. Immigration gives the country new jobs, new businesses, new inventions. The immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. People tend to fear job competition in times of hardship or depression — and the threat of having jobs “stolen” from them — but the fact is that a bigger workforce means more consumption and more demand.
(e) The Supreme Court: The “Two Anthony’s”
Reagan deserves immense credit for two of his appointments to the Supreme Court: “the two Anthony’s”, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. They served exactly 30 years a piece (Scalia from 1986-2016, Kennedy from 1988-2018) and we can now fully appreciate the influence each has had in the cause of judicial liberty. For Scalia it was originalism that mattered; interpreting the law with respect to the framers’ intentions, and not legislating from the bench for desired outcomes. For Kennedy, it was about ensuring that the liberty enshrined in the Constitution be given its full meaning, for the liberty of all citizens, and not just white heterosexual men.
Here’s a handful of noteworthy court opinions by Scalia and Kennedy.
Flag-burning (Scalia and Kennedy): In 1989, both Scalia and Kennedy joined the three liberals on the Court to protect the right to burn the American flag (Texas v. Johnson). While people wondered if Kennedy might swing in this direction, no one predicted that an arch-conservative like Scalia would not only join the liberals, but unreservedly — without even filing a separate opinion. And it’s noteworthy that Scalia later said that he personally wished that he could put flag-burners in jail, but that the First Amendment didn’t allow him that. This showed him to be far more principled than his accusers ever gave him credit for. Texas v. Johnson was a narrow 5-4 case, and if not for Reagan justices Scalia and Kennedy, I’m sure the outcome would have been different. Today the greatest threats to the First Amendment come from the left, but back in the ’80s they came from the right; I remember us all worrying that flag-burning would actually become illegal. Thanks to the two Anthonys — who both ruled against the grain of their rightist views — that’s not the case.
Abortion (Kennedy): In 1992, Kennedy was the swing voter who reaffirmed the right to abortion. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was a landmark decision that upheld an earlier decision (Roe v. Wade), on both a constitutional basis and the importance of precedent. The idea is that prior judicial rulings should be upheld even if they are unpopular (unless there is a change in the fundamental reasoning involved in the previous decision). In this case, an entire generation of women had come of age free to assume the concept of liberty enshrined in Roe v. Wade, and it’s a liberty that should be protected. (Scalia dissented, showing the problems when his originalism was applied too narrowly.)
Terror Suspects (Scalia): In 2004, Scalia on the one hand dissented against the majority’s ruling that foreign detainees at Guantanamo should have access to U.S. federal courts (in Rasul v. Bush), arguing (rightly in my view) that detention policy and practice is an executive function during wartime, and not subject to judicial review. On the other hand, on the same day, Scalia went the other way (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld), dissenting in the most liberal way possible — in favor of full due process for detainees who are actual American citizens. The case involved Yaser Hamdi, an American who grew up in Saudi Arabia and was captured by Taliban fighters in 2001, then later taken and detained in South Carolina as an enemy combatant. Scalia was one of only two justices (Stevens was the other) who was willing to take the uncompromising (and most liberal) stand that an American citizen could not be detained as an enemy combatant; he must either be charged and tried under normal criminal law, or be freed altogether. His view (again the correct one in my view) was that there could be no middle ground, and that the court’s only job is to determine whether or not an arrest is constitutional or not, and then order the person’s release or proper arrest — not to invent a new process for detention, as the majority ended up doing. Because of that majority, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court had on the one hand conferred constitutional rights to non-Americans (in Rasul), while on the other hand restricting American rights of due process (in Hamdi). Scalia’s positions show how his originalist doctrine has been unfairly maligned as overly-conservative. Originalism, as the cases of Rasul and Hamdi show, is blind to conservative/liberal outcomes; it favors the result it must.
Violent Videogames (Scalia): In 2011, Scalia wrote for the majority (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants) against the state of California’s attempt to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors. California was trying to treat violent games like cigarettes and alcohol, and Scalia, even as a parental conservative, would have none of it, declaring that video games — like movies, books, music and all other art forms — are are protected by the First Amendment.
Gay Marriage (Kennedy): In 2015, Kennedy wrote for the majority, explaining that the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment make same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. It’s important to note that gay marriage was upheld on the basis of the Constitution itself, in the same way that Loving vs. Virginia invalidated bans on interracial unions in 1967, and that Turner vs. Safley did the same for prisoners in 1987. The right to freedom of contract has long been understood as a most basic liberty protected by the Constitution, and from the government’s point of view, that’s all marriage is: a contract. (Scalia dissented on the basis of his originalism, begging the question, and as with Planned Parenthood, showing the limits of originalism when embraced too literally.)
Whatever Reagan saw in Scalia and Kennedy, the fact is that he appointed them, and the cause of liberty was overwhelmingly better for it for three decades. The impact of these justices on legal thought can hardly be overstated. Had Reagan appointed more garden-variety conservatives, the texture of today’s jurisprudence would be far less robust. And Scalia’s legacy lives on in his replacement: the Trump appointment of Neil Gorsuch has given the court another originalist who has shown himself willing to side with liberal justices as often as with the other conservatives, wherever the law takes him.
As much as the TV series Stranger Things has enabled me to rediscover good things about growing up in the ’80s, a careful study of all the presidents has cast Reagan in a better light when seen from a distance. Here’s how I score him:
Peace (foreign policy). For going after the weak non-strategic countries of Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada (almost as if to prove that the Vietnam Syndrome was in the past, yet America is “still tough”), I dock him a point each for those needless excursions. For the arms race (that cost the taxpayers dearly) and for raising the specter of nuclear war with the Soviets, when the Soviet empire was doing a fine job killing itself on its own, I dock him 4 points. And for using Islamic jihadists to fight communist forces, another 4 points (just as I docked Carter). He left much to be desired in foreign policy, but he was not abysmal like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.
Prosperity (domestic policy). For a decade of prosperity, Reagan deserves a strong measure of credit, especially for leaving the Fed in the hands of Volcker and Greenspan. I dock him for that prosperity being slanted towards the already wealthy (-2), and because it was offset by Reagan’s own extremely liberal spending policies (-4).
Liberty. If you had asked me in the ’80s to score the liberty record of a man who approved the Iran-Contra affair and escalated the drug war, I might have given the goose egg. But Reagan deserves credit for the federal MLK holiday (which encouraged more states to swiftly follow suit), his amnesty to millions of immigrants, and for appointing excellent Supreme Court judges who have had important and lasting effect.
Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 14/20
Liberty — 10/20
TOTAL SCORE = 33/60 = Average
My scores are thus considerably higher than Ivan Eland’s (peace 2, prosperity 5, liberty 3, for a total of 10/60). Eland does a good job demolishing the positive myths of Reagan, but he tends to swallow the negative myths whole. I admit that it’s hard to shed those negative feelings. Reagan has an entrenched image that makes an objective assessment hard. But not impossible. If Reagan was not an overall good president, he was not an overall bad one either.