The Book Club

Reagan’s Mixed Legacy

Dear Dinesh,

What a relief. Something would be very wrong if we found nothing to argue about. It’s also a relief to be able to put aside Morris’ book, which we both agree is a strange and wrongheaded failure, and talk about Reagan directly.

And what about Reagan? Like most liberals, I was horrified by almost everything Reagan did as president. Today, I consider him a much more impressive figure than I once did and can even admire some of what he achieved. But Morris, in his simplistic way, and you, in your much more knowledgeable way, go much too far, I think, in your claims about Reagan’s importance to history.

Several years ago, I wrote a long essay of my own about Reagan, the only time I’ve tried to write anything serious about him, for a presidential reference book; and I was surprised by how much more sympathetic I was to him than I had once been. He deserves considerable credit, I think, for restoring a sense of possibility and optimism to American popular culture. There is, of course, an easily crossed line between confident optimism and arrogant jingoism, and that line was sometimes crossed–by Reagan himself and by many others–in the ‘80s (just as it was, much more disastrously, by many Democrats in the ‘60s). But on the whole, I think he was a positive force in the way he reduced the rancor and disillusionment that had grown so corrosive in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.

I also think that Reagan made some (I emphasize “some”) important contributions to American social policy. He continued and accelerated a movement in both elite and popular thinking about welfare policy that had largely begun in the Nixon years: that welfare should be much more closely tied to work, that it should be (to use a phrase created, but never really acted upon, by Lyndon Johnson) a “hand up not a handout.” That movement has culminated, at least so far, in the welfare reforms of the Clinton years, for which both the president and the Congress are responsible. Reagan’s own understanding of the nature of the welfare system and its effects was, like Morris’, largely simplistic and uninformed. But his instincts were at least partially right, and like many liberals, I was slow to recognize that. I now do believe, as I think most Americans do, that getting people to work is the best thing a public policy can do to lift people out of poverty and redeem their lives. I note that William Julius Wilson, certainly no conservative, has argued this quite eloquently in his recent book When Work Disappears. And I think Reagan deserves some credit in legitimizing that notion, even if his reasons for doing so are not necessarily ones I would support. The Reagan administration was, I think, gratuitously punitive toward some of the poorest and most desperate welfare recipients and put much too much of the burden of its supposed deficit reduction on the backs of those least able to afford it (and on programs so meagerly funded that their contribution to deficit reduction was meaningless in any case). The same could be said for the unattractively punitive features of the 1996 welfare reform. But it has also gone largely unnoticed that the Reagan administration supported some of the early state back-to-work experiments that eventually showed impressive results, and that it expanded the EITC, which has now (after its much greater expansion under Clinton) become one of the great success stories of contemporary social policy.

On the larger question of Reagan’s economic policy, however, I am less in agreement with you. No one can deny that the American economy grew impressively after 1983, that the stock market rose astronomically, that there was much new investment, and that many important new economic sectors flourished. Credit for that must be distributed widely, but the economic policies of the Reagan administration undoubtedly contributed. On the other hand, the economic boom of the ‘80s and the ‘90s is unlike any previous economic boom in American history in creating a very substantial upward distribution of wealth and in benefiting those on the bottom 50 to 60 percent of the economic ladder very little, if at all. Blame for that must also be distributed widely, but I have no doubt that the Reagan administration’s economic policies–cutting taxes mostly for the upper brackets while watching higher social security taxes eat away at lower- and middle-class family incomes, as just one example–contributed to this large social failure.

Finally, the Cold War. Of course Reagan and Bush and Thatcher and the Pope and many others made contributions to the denouement of the Soviet Union, and all deserve credit for that. But to say that Reagan was more responsible for the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the Cold War than Gorbachev–or that either of them was more responsible for it than the cascading economic crises in the U.S.S.R. itself–just doesn’t make sense. Yes, the Soviet economy had never done as well as Western economies and had often experienced crises. But the erosion of Soviet economic life in the last 10 years of its existence as a nation was much more serious, rapid, and destructive than anything that had come before. Certainly part of the reason for that was the very high levels of unproductive military spending. But those high levels had been eroding the economy since well before Reagan ratcheted up the arms race. (That was, after all, one of his rationales for doing so.) There were many other grave problems as well, not least–as I mentioned the other day–the Afghan War, none of which were a result of Western policy.

Morris’ argument that Reagan’s statements had a tremendous ideological effect on the Soviet people is the weakest way to support the case for Reagan’s importance. The Russian people, whatever their views of their own regime, are much too proud and nationalistic to take to heart Reagan’s or any American’s denunciations of them. But while I give Reagan credit for recognizing the value of working with Gorbachev and doing nothing to obstruct the changes that were occurring and that were quickly moving well beyond what Gorbachev himself wanted, I can see no basis on which to attribute the central role in this great historical event to him. George Washington was president during the French Revolution; we do not credit that event to him. Reagan was rather more complicit in the end of the Soviet Union than Washington was in the end of the French monarchy, but it was not ultimately his doing.

You make a much better case for Reagan than Morris does, and historians will certainly be debating these questions for generations. But I suspect that in the end, the judgment of Reagan will be considerably more mixed than yours (and perhaps more mixed than mine as well).

It’s been a pleasure discussing these issues with you. I wish I could say the same about reading the book.