Posted: April 26, 2010
n the penultimate page of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980, the first volume of his magisterial political history, Steven Hayward drew this momentous but tentative conclusion:
In smashing the monopoly of liberalism in 1980, Reagan exposed the fractured and increasingly hollow character of what passes for liberalism in the late twentieth century, and prepared the ground of political debate on which American politics is still being conducted today. That is what makes the closing decades of the twentieth century the "Age of Reagan." Like the post-New Deal era—the "Age of Roosevelt"—the Age of Reagan may prove equally durable.
This possibility looks more likely, though still uncertain, 21 years after Reagan left office than at almost any time during his presidency. One of the many merits of Hayward's second volume, covering Reagan's years in the White House, is that it reminds the reader firmly just how embattled and frustrated he seemed for much of the period. Simply to list some of the main episodes of those years—the attempted assassination and its aftermath, the resignation of Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman, two mid-term electoral reverses, the retreat from Lebanon under fire, the nuclear freeze movement, the 1987 stock market crash, the Iran-Contra hearings, the Savings and Loan crisis, the "Borking" of Robert Bork—is to depict a presidency mired in difficulties and apparently heading for oblivion. All of these setbacks were magnified by an almost comically biased media. And though Reagan enjoyed successes from Grenada to Reykjavik, they seemed brief and atypical interludes in a general story of amiable confusion. About the most flattering impression at the time was of Reagan as Laocoön waging a magnificent but doomed struggle to free himself and America from the coils of Liberaldom at home and abroad.
We have to remind ourselves—or have Hayward remind us—of this contemporary impression because recent Reagan scholarship has presented a far more favorable view of the man and his presidency. Books by liberal historians such as John Patrick Diggins and Richard Reeves have conceded that Reagan was a formidable statesman with great historical achievements to his credit. Reagan himself contributed to this revisionism when his columns, broadcasts, and diaries, published over the past ten years, revealed him not as an "amiable dunce" but as a well-informed, serious man with a strong grasp of major political issues. Events in the real world—which sometimes conquer even the defense mechanisms of intellectuals—came to his aid as well. His economic policies were followed by America's economic recovery, the modernization of U.S. capitalism, and a boom that lasted 26 years with only two brief and modest interruptions. His foreign policy led to the first U.S.-Soviet arms reduction agreement, victory in the Cold War, and the peaceful collapse of Communism.
If anything, Reagan's new admirers compensate for their heresy on the central issues of Reaganomics and the Cold War by repeating the standard liberal critiques of his policies on homelessness, budget "cuts," the environment, AIDS, labor unions, affirmative action, and almost everything else. Indeed, these critiques often have a curious taken-for-granted quality as if it is unnecessary to argue such things since everyone knows them to be true.
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By contrast, Hayward, who is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, sets out to look in detail at almost all the important controversies of the Reagan era (the S&L crisis is a rare exception). In doing so, he examines critically not only what Reagan said and what his administration did but also how the Democrats responded and what the media reported. He discovers, unsurprisingly, that sometimes the Reagan Administration was either seriously mistaken (the Iran-Contra affair) or blunderingly inept (the Bob Jones University tax flap). More often than not, however, he finds that the administration was correct or at least reasonable, the media partisan, and the Democrats alarmist.
The fabled "cuts" in Reagan's landmark 1981-82 budget are a good example of all three. What the administration initially proposed (before congressional haggling added various pork-barrel items) involved no actual reductions in welfare spending at all. Almost all the supposed "cuts" were reductions in a previously planned rate of growth (i.e., budget hikes). As Hayward points out, "overall spending for all social programs in 1982 was still $53 billion higher than in 1980." But this modest fiscal restraint was depicted by the media as the imposition of a brutal austerity.
"Hunger in America is back," intoned Bill Moyers in a CBS special before Reagan's "cuts" had even taken effect. Charles Kuralt similarly reported that food stamp cuts were "putting people into a 1981 version of the bread line." (When they eventually came, the 4% "cuts"—$100 million out of $11.4 billion—tightened eligibility, but 22 million recipients remained on food stamps.) "The impact of the Reagan cuts on minority groups is likely to be severe," ran a front-page Washington Postnews report. Several urban Democrats predicted a long hot summer of riots as a result of the "cuts." (The riots never occurred.) Tip O'Neill, Speaker of the House and their de facto leader, said in a spontaneous television interview that the president "has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man in America." Later, in a speech, he accused Reagan of being "a tightwad, a real Ebenezer Scrooge."
In the course of his narrative Hayward subjects one after another of these anti-Reagan critiques to a well-researched, critical examination. Almost always they turn out to be either grossly exaggerated or outright untruths. (Perhaps it would be kinder to describe them as metropolitan myths or superstitions of the sophisticated.) This painstaking process sometimes slows down Hayward's otherwise well-paced and highly readable account. But that is a price worth paying for a comprehensive analysis that will serve as a treasure trove for future historians.
It also helps answer another question. How did Reagan's popularity withstand this avalanche of difficulties and bad publicity? His critics have argued over the years that the president's amiability and communication skills persuaded the voters to overlook or forgive the "cruelty," "harshness," or "callousness" of his policies. But if his policies were none of those things, as Hayward establishes very clearly, maybe the explanation is that the voters realized that Reagan was closer to reality than his critics in the media and the opposition. This sympathy for the president on matters voters grasped, such as food stamps, would then bolster his credibility on more arcane questions, such as monetarism and missile defense.
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When Hayward moves onto the larger picture of the Cold War, he tackles material on which established opinion is already favorable to Reagan—far more so than when the author began his gargantuan two-volume task. Yet he tells a gripping story vividly—especially the Geneva and Reykjavik summits—with balanced judgments and new material. And as in other recent accounts, Reagan emerges as a statesman significantly different from the portrait of him both admirers and critics have carried in their minds. The simplest description is to say that he saw all the great issues of politics, including peace and war, through a serious (Christian) moral perspective.
Although SDI turned out to have all sorts of political advantages for America, the overriding appeal of missile defense for the president was the argument that it was more moral to defend the American people than to avenge them with a nuclear strike. This commitment, which was close to nuclear pacifism, won over Pope John Paul II when they met in 1982 in Rome. Meanwhile, the U.S. Catholic bishops defended the "stability" of Mutual Assured Destruction over and against this explicitly moral calculation, even though they had long been uneasy (at best) about MAD.
Reagan's nuclear views reflected a subtle, prudent view of military power in general. He was more than happy to employ ashow of force as a strategic tactic. He did so on entering office when he signed off on the proposal of U.S. Navy Secretary John Lehman for a massive Anglo-American naval exercise in the North Atlantic to challenge Soviet domination in that region. On the other hand, he was very reluctant actually to use force—according to his secretary of state, George Shultz, he did so on only three occasions in eight years. When American medical students were threatened by a Marxist coup on the island of Grenada, he doubled the number of troops requested by the Joint Chiefs (whom he infuriated by falling asleep during their briefing) because he thought more lives would be saved on all sides if the U.S. had an overwhelming predominance. He pointed out, too, that if Jimmy Carter had doubled the number of troops and helicopters in his attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, he might still have been giving the orders in 1983.
In short there was no discontinuity between the Reagan who denounced the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and helped the Contras in Central America, and the Reagan who worked with Mikhail Gorbachev to sign arms reduction agreements. In each case the president was pursuing a tough-minded moral strategy to resist and defeat Communism without risking a nuclear war. And as it turned out, that's exactly what happened.
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Even so, Hayward ends his study on an elegiac, questioning note. Did Ronald Reagan create a Reagan era? Or did he merely slow the drift of America towards a somnolent statist future? These questions redirect our attention to American domestic politics. For, as the opening quote makes clear, a Reagan era would be one in which Reagan, like Roosevelt before him, set the terms of American political debate for the foreseeable future. But Reagan is accused, somewhat less by Hayward than by some disillusioned conservative reviewers, of failing in that task in various ways. How valid are such charges?
Reagan certainly failed to turn the culture back to the simpler, more patriotic world of the 1930s that he idealized and even embodied. Gay rights, abortion rights, and other moral novelties continued their remorseless advance through the culture. But he had other things to do—winning the Cold War, reviving the American economy—that seemed more important at the time. Besides, the wholesale transformation of a culture is not something that a president is expected—at least by conservatives—to attempt. It is remarkable enough that he should have restored the standing of the presidency and the belief that America is governable.
Reagan equally failed to reverse welfare-state liberalism. Hayward posits that this is because persuading voters to give up benefits they already enjoy is beyond the power of political man—or at least harder than defeating Communism. Maybe so. But Reagan halted the advance of such liberalism. When he left office, he bequeathed to his successors a set of penalties and incentives that for two decades or so made any further flirtation with that liberalism costly and controversial.
Reagan did fail, however—and fail significantly—where Margaret Thatcher succeeded. He failed to convert the opposition party. For a while he seemed to have done so; President Bill Clinton balanced the budget, declared that the era of big government was over, embraced NATO and NAFTA expansion, backed a Republican plan for welfare reform, and sought safety in triangulation. But a series of factors—the Iraq war, George W. Bush's domestic drift leftwards, the political possibilities of the internet, boredom with centrism—pushed the Democrats back towards their statist and wobbly foreign-policy attitudes of 20 years ago. And Barack Obama was elected president on policies that reflected these attitudes.
Obama has praised Reagan, as Hayward notes sympathetically, for changing the "trajectory" of American politics. But the current administration's policies are a thorough reversal of that trajectory on the economy, taxes, the budget, health care, climate change, and much else. Hence we cannot be sure if the "Age of Reagan" will prove a durable era or merely a conservative interlude between the "ages" of Roosevelt and Obama.
What is clear is that if the Reagan era is to be durable, then President Obama must not succeed—either politically because he cannot pass his programs, or substantively because his programs pass but then produce some blend of higher inflation and lower growth, and are subsequently abandoned. Reaganomics succeeded politically in 1981, but its more lasting success was the long boom in the years after Reagan left office. What matters ultimately is not the popularity of a policy but the popularity (and soundness) of its results. Steven Hayward deserves our gratitude for establishing this vital but unfashionable truth over the full range of policy and the eight years of the Reagan presidency, even if a final judgment on the durability of the Reagan era remains tantalizingly open.