Monday, June 07, 2004

The Legacy Of Reagan

For the next week or two, television and print media will be awash with eulogies for Ronald Reagan. While the nation mourns his death at the age of 93 (he outlived all other Presidents), there will be a reckoning of his legacy as President. Unfortunately for the national discourse, the recall of the Reagan years has become rather euphoric in the hindsight provided for by the more than 15 years of time that has elapsed since his final days in office. A closer analysis reveals a much more complicated picture.

There are, as a starting point, some incontrovertible facts. First of all, Reagan was an extremely popular President, as is evidenced by that fact that he won two elections by convincing landslides (at least in the electoral college sense, but even in the popular vote tally he did quite well, relatively speaking). when he was re-elected in 1984, he took 49 states, losing only Democratic challenger Walter Mondale's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.

I think it is also safe to state that Reagan was a great orator and communicator. Whether or not you agreed with his message, he had the ability to convince large segments of the population that his was the right way. His speeches were crafted with a deft combination of moral certainty, a warm smile and a quick wit. In turn, his message and persona provided many with a much needed reprieve from the preceding two decades that were fraught with societal introspection, doubt, civil unrest, economic stagnation and social and political upheaval marked by a long, bloody, unpopular war that ended in what was in essence a defeat.

With the stage set, enter the cowboy on his trusty white steed riding in from the West to redeem the American spirit, reclaim and redefine the moral high ground, rebuild the dilapidated American military might and the re-ignite the slumbering American economy. At least, so the story goes, but the reality is somewhat different, despite the efforts of those that have erected a cult of personality around Reagan, reminiscent, ironically enough, of the adulation shown to leaders in communist countries he fought so hard to bring down.

According to the Reagan revisionists, the President did no wrong and made no mistakes (sound familiar?), but, conversely, was responsible for such momentous achievements as the toppling of communism, creating the strongest economy in this nation's history and bringing the nation back from the brink of an existential crisis of liberal inspired self-flagellation, to name a few. A more in depth and impartial look at the Reagan legacy reveals a mosaic of policies that are not so pure in intent or outcome. There is an excellent analysis of Reagan's tenure by fellow blogger Billmon, which I will be quoting from,
that you can find here.

In reality, Reagan did confront communism in a pro-active and determined fashion, but the argument that he toppled communism is myopic at best, and disingenuous at worst. The fact is that there were fundamental structural flaws in the political and economic models of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. Communism in these regions was collapsing under its own ponderous weight. It is possible, if not probable, that Reagan hastened its demise through his instigation of an accelerated arms race, but to suggest that he alone was responsible greatly underestimates the importance of the role that Mikhail Gorbachev played in the process. Without Gorbachev's historic break from decades of hard line tradition in promoting glasnost and perestroika, the Communist leadership in the U.S.S.R could have maintained its grip on power for many more years. In a sense, Reagan benefited from good timing, and the serendipitous emergence of a tango partner in the Kremlin.

As for the impact of Reagan's foreign policy on a micro level, I think Billmon does such a fine job that I will just quote him:

The legacy of Reagan's policies in the Middle East, meanwhile, are still being paid for - in blood. The cynical promotion of Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the alliance of convenience with Saddam Hussein against Iran, the forging of a new 'strategic relationship' with Israel, the corrupt dealings with the House of Saud, and (perhaps most ironic, given Reagan's tough guy image) the weakness and indecision of his disastrous intervention in Beruit - all of these helped set the stage for what the neocons now like to call World War IV, and badly weakened the geopolitical ability of the United States to wage that war.

But all this pales in comparison to Reagan's war crimes in Central America. We'll probably never know just how stained his hands were by the blood of the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of defenseless peasants who were slaughtered in the Guatemalan highlands, or the leftist politicians, union leaders and human rights activists kidnapped and killed by the Salvadoran death squads, or torturned in Honduran prisons, or terrorized by his beloved contras.

Did Reagan's men covertly support these murders? Or did they just look the other way? Did Reagan ever know just what kind of charnel house he helped create? Or did he live completely in his fantasy world of freedom fighters and 'founding fathers'? Either way, it was in Central America that Reagan most clearly earned that nickname the hippies pinned on him back in Berkeley: 'fascist gun in the West.'

Looking back, it's also easy to see the propaganda connections between Reagan's war in Central America and the current Orwellian nightmare in Iraq. There were the same moral oversimplications - pure goodness versus absolute evil - the same flowerly rhetoric about freedom and democracy (to be administered to impoverished campesinos with machine guns and torture chambers.) There was the same lurid hype about the dire danger to the homeland - as when Reagan famously warned that Nicaragua was just a 'two-day drive from Harlington, Texas.'

And of course, we're even looking at some of the same actors - Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte, Colin Powell. To a large degree, the Reagan administration's covert wars in both Central America and the Middle East formed the template for how the war in Iraq was packaged, sold and - unfortunately - fought.
Thank you Billmon.

As for his economic policies, there is also a mixed bag of successes and failures. Under Reagan, certain segments of the economy surged. There is no doubt that the business community had confidence in him and his policies, and so this led to a robust growth, especially when compared to the sluggish 70's. This was also, however, the time in which the middle class began to thin out and the gap between rich and poor widened greatly, a trend that has also been on the rise during the current administration's tenure. This was due, in part, to the regressive tax scheme and assault on the various New Deal and Great Society programs then in place. Despite the cuts in funding to programs like Head Start and school lunches, that disparately impacted the lower and middle classes, the deficit raged out of control.

This was due to drain on revenues from the enormous tax cuts that favored the upper classes (again, sound familiar?), and the fact that the theory, that this loss in revenue would be made up for in the increased revenue generated by the economic activity spurred by the same tax cuts, was proven woefully wrong. The impact of this theory's failure, and the resulting historic deficits, was felt for over a decade after his tenure, and paid for with may hard choices that affected people in harsh ways.

So while I wish to pay respects to a fallen American President who is due the proper dignity and honor befitting his tenure in office, I also am troubled by the attempt by those on the right to whitewash his policies and deify him as a leader. In truth, he was a very successful politician who did accomplish many things, but his legacy is not as one of the greatest Presidents ever, or worthy of displacing FDR as the face on the dime. But I understand the rush by conservatives to raise him to such a status. After all, other than Reagan, who can they point to as their standard bearer to counter the legacies of FDR, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton? Could it be Nixon? Eisenhower? Bush Sr.? Ford? George W.? Hardly.

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