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The Man Who Was Responsible for Dividing the Country ... into Reaganite Republicans and Reaganite Democrats

American politics today is evenly split into two camps, the Republican Reaganites and the Democratic Reaganites. Start with economics—no one had to tell Reagan, “it’s the economy, stupid!” Reagan’s first challenge was mending an economy in such deep trouble that most observers thought the country was permanently stagnating relative to its stronger competitors. Stagflation in 1980 was a combination of inflation and high unemployment. The Keynesian model said it was impossible: the theory was that the “Phillips curve” taught that you could always trade one for the other. Yet inflation was out of control and interest rates had soared to nearly 20 percent, making long-range planning almost impossible for corporations, and home mortgages prohibitively expensive for young couples. Reality destroyed Keynesianism; today it’s as dead as socialism. Critics said Reagan would need voodoo to slay that monster; his voodoo worked and it is the Democratic Reaganites (like Robert Rubin) who today warn against fiscal policies that threaten to raise interest rates again.

Reagan railed against the federal deficit—his screeds are echoed almost word for word by the Democratic Reaganites these days. (Government debt is indeed hurtful when interest rates are as high as they were in 1980; when they are as low as they are today, the debt is not much of a burden to ourselves or our grandchildren.) Reagan preached Supply Side Economics that combined basic themes of republicanism and efficiency. In terms of political ethics it reflected Grover Cleveland’s dictum that unnecessary taxation is unjust taxation—it is a corruption and an evil. In the name of efficiency, supply siders argued that cutting taxes would permanently boost the economy by releasing entrepreneurial spirits. The Republican Reaganites of course hold faithfully to the creed. Most Democrats, like John Kerry, have accepted it. (Kerry says he will only raise taxes on the undeserving super-rich, thus neutralizing the idea that unnecessary taxes are a corruption.) As for the empirical results of Supply Side, note that federal revenues, after declining in the first year after Reagan’s massive tax cuts, rebounded strongly – as predicted. Indeed, the economy that caused so much malaise in 1980 was roaring back in 1984: America was back, stronger than ever. The voters of 1984 of course realized that; 49 states rejected the old New Dealer, Walter Mondale.

The New Deal was largely reversed during the Reagan years. He did preserve the Social Security system, which was in danger of collapse. Thanks to a universally accepted compromise designed by his chief economist, Reagan and Congress raised the retirement age and thus dramatically reduced the future payouts and stabilized the system. That is Reagan lowered the implicit national debt. Reversing the hoary adage of the Progressive Era, he proclaimed, "Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” He was an enemy of the welfare state—he cut some budgets and most important he transformed the terms of the debate.

Reagan’s redefinition of welfare as corrupt and inefficient allowed the triumph of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in 1995, when they abolished the most egregious features that perpetuated a cycle of poverty and dependence. No leading Democrat to the right of Dennis Kucinich now speaks of returning to the old system. Reagan was the foremost enemy of the regulatory state. He built a bipartisan coalition that swept away most of the remaining New Deal controls holding back industries such as banking, airlines, telecommunications, and trucking. People have complained about some of the effects, but no one wants to turn back the clock. As a trust-buster Reagan scored the biggest success since President Taft dissolved Standard Oil in 1911 by breaking up ATT, the New Deal’s favorite monopoly. Simultaneously he dropped the punitive attacks on big business that had characterized New Deal Democrats like Lyndon Johnson. (In his last week in office LBJ started a massive antitrust suit to break up IBM.. Seeing it as an unfair attack on entrepreneurial success, Reagan dropped the suit.)

Reagan was the one who finally buried the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. Recall that the New Deal had also strongly opposed it, albeit for different reasons. Did women need special protection or could they achieve the American dream without special protections? Women soared under his watch. The enrollment of women in law school, business school, medical schools and the military rocketed upwards. This achievement was ignored by the militant feminists, who ideologically were unable to celebrate middle class success. But even they stood in awe when Reagan moved the Supreme Court to the right by making his first nomination--a conservative woman whom everyone had to vote for. He finalized conservative control by promoting William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, not to mention hundreds of young conservative lawyers who reshaped the federal district and appeals courts. Reagan’s judicial triumphs helped eventually to reverse the crime wave. After getting blown apart by the way Michael Dukakis mishandled the explosive crime issue in 1988, Democrats sought safety under the Reaganite umbrella. Today they nominate tough prosecutors like Kerry and take credit for adding 100,000 new police officers, building hundreds of thousands of new prison cells, and keeping them filled so that our streets are no longer so fearsome.

In foreign policy Reagan’s critics warned of Armageddon, making hysterical charges that he would destroy détente, ruin relations with our allies, and bring the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. He did put détente on hold until Moscow did a 180 degree about face; then he rewarded Gorbachev with a series of astonishing arms reduction deals and set up the end of the Cold War. As for the allies, he did convince NATO countries to accept new missiles over the vehement protests of the peace movement and anti-American forces. More important in the long run was Reagan’s success in forging a special relationship with Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, setting up a partnership that to this day underpins the Bush-Blair alliance. The Democratic Reaganites hail Reagan’s achievement in ending the Cold War. In 1991 Jimmy Carter proclaimed, "Under President Ronald Reagan, the nation stayed strong and resolute and made possible the end of the Cold War." Just yesterday Kerry said Reagan had “shaped one of the greatest victories of freedom." They attribute Reagan’s triumph to his being inspired by Democratic Cold Warriors like Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, John Kennedy and Paul Nitze—which surely is more accurate than saying Reagan followed the Republican isolationist guidance of Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft. However I suggest the Democratic Reaganites misread history. Reagan after 1960 rejected containment, and came much closer to the ideas of James Burnham (of the National Review). Barry Goldwater was getting his “Why Not Victory” ideas from the same source, but lacked Reagan’s uncanny ability to disarm his critics. Reagan attacked Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1976, and Carter in 1980 for pushing détente and setting up the humiliations suffered during the 1970s. That all ended with Reagan’s new policy of rollback. He started with Grenada in 1983—a small move militarily but the greatest policy shift in a generation, one that stunned the world and shocked the Soviets into totally rethinking their entire system. He put heavy economic or even military pressure against Communist regimes in Afghanistan, Poland, Latin America, and indeed everywhere. The longstanding argument against rollback was that it mean nuclear war. Reagan found just the right formula—Star Wars, combined with a massive increase in high tech warfare and a new offensive mission for American military might. Star Wars was funded and is going forward right now--all the major Democratic candidates this year supported it (including Howard Dean). Clinton gingerly adopted rollback when he secured Congressional approval in 1998 for a policy of regime change in Iraq; it was George W. Bush who wholeheartedly endorsed rollback, winning two wars (against adversaries as strong as Vietnam) with support from most Democratic leaders. Kerry has supported Bush’s basic strategy in the Mideast, complaining that Bush handled Iraq and terrorism inefficiently. Kerry’s solution is to add even more troops, attack terrorists more aggressively, and to modernize the military even faster than Reagan. Only a few Democrats recoil away from the this Reaganite vision of American moralism triumphant. Kucinich is the most articulate foe; along with Ralph Nader and Michael Moore; they speak for the anti-Reaganite remnant of the once dominant New Deal movement.

Reagan made Americans proud again. The malaise was gone, forgotten as the economic demons were slain and foreign enemies faltered. Many occasions of national pride and unity found the ideal spokesman in the White House. He went to Europe for his best platforms: telling the British that the last pages of Soviet history were now being written, demanding that Gorbachev “tear down this Wall,” commemorating the heroes of the Normandy beaches twenty years ago today . Reagan personalized American politics—asking not if the statistical indicators were a few points higher, but if you personally felt better off than four years before. No Reaganite, Democrat or Republican, has matched his eloquence with the single exception of Bush’s address to the Congress after 9-11. Ronald Reagan redefined the two core values of American politics, republicanism and efficiency. For the last two decades every major politician has worked in terms of his ideas and his values, and, with a show of the optimism he made famous, we can expect his vision will guide the nation for decades to come as we try to Win One for the Gipper.