Ronald Reagan is the one President in American history who still evokes plenty of emotion on both sides of the aisle. It seems as each election cycle comes, candidates in both parties will quote him, tell stories about him, what he stood for and some in the GOP will even claim to be the next Reagan. Can you remember the last time candidates mentioned Coolidge, Jefferson, Madison or George Washington? So what makes Reagan so special?
As we mark the twelfth anniversary of his passing, I wonder if Ronald Reagan has become a fancy catchphrase for people to use when they want to be viewed as “Conservative” or do people really remember his legacy and how he helped transform America in eight short years.
When Reagan took his oath of office in 1981 he was handed an economy on its back and ready to collapse. It was starting to suffer its third recession in twelve years, a stock market rapidly losing value, double digit inflation and interest rates, high unemployment, reductions in real median family income, increases in poverty and gas prices at $1.35 which is roughly $3.55 in today’s money.
Overseas America’s role as a super-power and a beacon of freedom was being challenged by the Soviet Union who sought to spread the tyranny of Communism. Lastly he faced an American people who were lost, lacking in hope and who believed tomorrow would not bring a brighter future.
So what did Reagan do that changed the course of history?
It would be great to share a story right now of how he was America’s savior, how his policies saved the economy, how he was a conquering hero who slayed the villain in the deadliest of battles and how he was a brilliant man with incredible plans and ideas the world had never seen before and this led to your revival. That sure would be a great story to share but that is all it would be… a story.
Reagan was never your savior, he did not introduce policies we had never seen before and he certainly did not slay the villain in the deadliest of battles. However the real story is completely different and a lot more powerful.
When he became President, your government looked a lot different from the one your founders gave you. America had witnessed fifty years of progressive government from both parties which saw government expand into and control every sector of society. America no longer believed in the individual, it sought to control the individual. America became a country were career politicians and intellectual elites felt they knew what was best for you and helped form government agencies like the Departments of Education, Energy, HUD to help you and make you dependent on government.
Reagan was different. He had a set of core beliefs which were very similar to your founding fathers. He believed government should be limited, man should be free to pursue his or her own dreams and ambitions and that real freedom could overcome any enemy. At home he believed in every single one of you. He knew the secret to America was to release you from the chains of government and once again become an independent people. He worked to create an environment that helped unleash the energy and individual genius of man so that you could once again innovate and have a prosperous future. No American needs government to help them get an advantage, they just need government to get out of the way and ensure a level playing field for all.
The first way he did this was to reduce the tax burden on every American. He had a belief that Americans keeping more of their pay-check not only incentivised hard work and innovation. It also allowed you to control more of your future because it allowed you to purchase items you wanted like a car or a holiday or allowed you to save for a house and family. During his presidency he reduced taxes several times and by 1986 there were two tax rates of 28% and 15% down from the highs of 70% when he took office.
However he also sought to reduce the size of government by cutting spending, deregulated parts of the economy, eliminated price controls on oil and gas which led to a boom, and had an Anti-inflation monetary policy which more helped create a more stable dollar. Today some call this Reaganomics, others call it freedom.
When it came to foreign policy and dealing with the Soviet Union he carried a big stick and worked with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to overpower the spread of Communism thru out Europe and the world and to be a constant voice for freedom and the individual. For twenty years, there were voices in America and Europe who spoke out in support of Détente and how the only way to stop the march of Communism was to appease the Soviet Union and embrace a style of democratic socialism. Reagan did not embrace tyranny, appeasement, the belief we must accept failure or the fear of fighting for freedom. He often said that we will negotiate for peace, sacrifice for peace but we will never surrender for it.
Prior to 1980 there was a view that the US Military could not compete with the Soviets and the Iran hostage crisis and failed rescue attempt only increased those fears. When Reagan was elected he increased defence spending to ensure America was safe at home and could defeat the Soviets if that time came. He approved spending on programmes that created and built tanks, bombers, ballistic missiles and trident nuclear capable missiles. He also launched the now infamous “Star Wars” program which was a system designed to defend America from ballistic nuclear weapons. Reagan was also a real straight talker who would speak the truth about any scenario which I am sure made several bureaucrats nervous. Everyone knows the famous line in his Berlin speech where he boldly tells Mr Gorbachev, “Tear down this wall”, but that line was nearly cut from his speech several times as some of his generals felt it would have a negative impact. Reagan believed to his very core the power of freedom and included it in his speech. He was also a powerful communicator who regularly made comparisons between freedom and tyranny offered by the soviets. However he always one to share a message of hope and the belief that with work tomorrow can be a brighter future.
So what is the legacy of Ronald Reagan?
Domestically his policies helped the economy grow. Unemployment and inflation rates dropped, interest rates were back to normal and the economy grew by 2.5 trillion dollars – to put that number into context, that is the size of the combined economies of Germany and France in 1989 who were the third and fourth biggest economies of the day. The part that annoys progressives the most is despite cutting taxes several times, government revenue actually grew under his presidency.
Overseas his legacy will be hard for anyone to match as millions owe their freedoms today in large part to Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul. Reagan won the Cold War for several reasons. His powerful and constant promotion of freedom helped people believe tomorrow could bring hope and peace. This message directly inspired people to choose freedom and tear down the Berlin Wall with hammers, axes, chisels and even pocket-knives.
His rhetoric of star wars, calling the soviets the evil empire and all the funny stories he told about the Russian people and their commissar helped show the loving and hopeful side of Reagan during incredibly dangerous times. However the biggest reason America won the Cold War was because of each and every one of you. Reagan truly believed in each of you. It was this inner belief that helped him convince the Soviets that they could never compete with American research. Reagan knew your greatest advantage was freedom and convinced the soviet that a free person will always create, innovate and produce more than the people who are doing it for the country that treats them like second class citizens.
Lastly if you are ever lucky enough to visit his library in California you will notice a concrete slab near the entrance. It is a piece of the Berlin Wall. Reagan once said this slab is a message to our children and grandchildren and they should reflect on what it meant to history. “Let them understand that only vigilance and strength will deter tyranny”. These are attributes he had in abundance and a message to everyone today that faces similar tyrannies.