Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy

The following was written in 2004, during the George W. Bush administration. 

The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy
One factor that has led to the ongoing dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is the lack of a robust critique of the Reagan presidency. If conservatives fault him at all, they will likely mention only the shadow of high expectations he cast upon his successors.

But I would argue the opposite. It is the shadow of low expectations that haunts us in the long wake of the Reagan era, and the more a nation mythologizes a past president, the less chance of escaping the dark side of his legacy.

The strengths and charms of Ronald Reagan have been well celebrated, and deference was paid through the long years of his tragic illness. But for the good of the nation, it is time to strip the Reagan legacy of its protective amber of sentimentality and give it the same scrutiny afforded all other former presidents. Here are the outlines of such a critique:

President Reagan is widely viewed as a man of his word who consistently cut taxes and reduced the size of government. In fact, in studies that tracked whether presidents followed through on campaign promises, Reagan scored below all four of the most recent Democratic presidents.

After his initial tax cuts in 1981, he raised various taxes in every year that followed. He reduced domestic spending but increased spending elsewhere. To the government he inherited, he added $1.9 trillion in spending over eight years.

Ronald Reagan lifted a nation's spirit with his contagious optimism, yet he also introduced the seeds of a deep pessimism that haunts Republicans and the nation today. His oft-quoted words: "Government is not the solution; government is the problem," have been mistakenly used to legitimize a rigid, self-fulfilling notion that government cannot play an important role in solving problems. As demonstrated by 21st-century Republican rule, anti-government thinking has led not to smaller government but instead to incompetence, deepening debt and paralysis in the face of mounting problems.

One of Reagan's more celebrated quotes is: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." But this once-stirring call to party solidarity has had tragic consequences for the nation, as a Republican-controlled Congress failed to exercise oversight over itself and the Bush administration. The result is a Republican Party disciplined enough to acquire and solidify power but incapable of ethical and competent governance. George Washington's warnings about "the baneful effects of the spirit of party," voiced in his Farewell Address, speak to our time.

Reagan severed conservatives from a tradition of fiscal responsibility. Again in stark contrast to George Washington's warnings, a new policy of expanding government debt even in times of relative peace and prosperity began in the 1980s. Cutting government significantly and wisely requires deep knowledge, hard work, tough choices and a willingness to risk one's popularity. Reagan simply wasn't up to the task. According to biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan refused to at tack entitlements even when he had the opportunity to do so.

According to the U.S. General Accountability Office, our nation's debt and unfunded obligations stand at $53 trillion. Reagan's legacy of pain-avoidance, of promoting tax-rate cuts without the corresponding pain of spending cuts, has made this crisis impossible to discuss.

The Reagan administration's comparatively small-time escapades in Nicaragua and Grenada revealed a nation highly vulnerable to the sort of misleading sales job that preceded the current president's invasion of Iraq.

The Reagan model of a president often disengaged, with modest work ethic and with little curiosity about large sectors of reality, made similar weaknesses in George W. Bush's makeup seem less worrisome to voters.

Reagan allowed ideology to override scientific findings on evolution, AIDS and Star Wars, for instance. This blinders mentality continues to hamper governmental response to looming crises, most tragically in the case of climate change.

Ronald Reagan was most effective when he strayed from his own orthodoxy -- when he held talks with the "Evil Empire's" Mikhail Gorbachev, when he quietly withdrew troops from Lebanon, and when he increased taxes to keep Social Security solvent.

But his ideological descendants have inherited none of this pragmatism, and instead have turned his fighting words into rigid policy, expanding his darker policies while exploiting the blind spots in critical thinking that his winning personality cultivated in the public mind. Now, as problems languish and deepen, as climate change, health-care costs and massive debt cry out for a strong, informed governmental response, lingering affection for a president must not obscure the flaws in his personality and policies.

For the good of the nation and the Republican Party, it's time to drop the sentimentality and seek a better model for future leaders.

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