Chris Matthews has recently published a new book about Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill in which he discusses how the two worked together. I hope to get and read (and review the book) in the future but for now thought I’d offer a few thoughts on how the GOP might look to one their icons for guidance.
Of all the things people can say about him the one truth is he was a firm believer in listening to all sides and respecting the other guy’s point of view. Despite the fact that he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill disagreed on many issues the men remained friends, a pretty good thing when you consider the divisive nature of the political scene today.
So it is with that point of view that I have decided to approach this posting. As I have surfed the net and read both the postings and the responses to them I cannot help but to be struck by some of the polarizing viewpoints that are expressed.
Obviously if you are a strong New Deal liberal who sincerely believes that big government is good and that the best system is one with a large role for the government in the economy/etc then you aren’t going to be a fan of Reagan’s policies any more than a small government conservative would be a fan of FDR or LBJ.
But in both cases you should be able to accept that even if you don’t like most of their policies, they did do some good things.
By the same token even if you are a huge fan of Reagan (or conversely LBJ/FDR) you should be able to accept that they made mistakes, that they were merely human beings and not demigods who should be free from any criticism.
Yet when I look at some of the commentaries on the net I can’t help but think that some people are not able to see this. For some Reagan never did anything right, for others he never did anything wrong. The truth of course lies somewhere in between.
For example, when Reagan took office in 1981 the Cold war was in full swing and given the events of the 1970’s it certainly did not look like the Communist world was about to lose, indeed if anything they seemed to be on quite a roll (Africa, Asia, etc). By the time he left office in 1989 the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse.
Now I am not one of those who is going to say that he single-handedly won the war. Presidents from Truman to Carter had contributed to resisting the spread of Communism around the world. In addition the Soviets themselves did much to destroy their own system.
However it is also true that under the Reagan administration we moved from a policy of containing to a policy of confronting. We set out with the goal of not merely holding the line but rolling it back and in doing so we did help to speed up the decline of the Soviet empire.
At the same time he was also willing to reach out to the Soviets when he felt it was in our best interests to do so and once again he took a step that had not been taken before. Prior arms treaties had simply sought to limit nuclear weapons while the START treaties were the first to move to the serious reduction of such weapons.
Again, I’m not going to claim he invented the process, obviously every President before him had the desire to reduce nuclear weapons but if your fundamental policy is to keep the Soviet Union around but to limit its expansion then you have to be careful about reducing your defenses, while if your fundamental goal is to destroy the system then you can start looking more seriously at reductions.
A similar analysis could apply to his economic policies. I’m not going to deny that the deficits are probably the worst legacy of the Reagan years. Indeed for me, deficits and debt are something for which I will always blame a leader be he Reagan or Bush or Obama.
But let us not forget that the 1970’s were marked by some of the worst economic conditions in decades. High inflation and high unemployment combined with a stagnant economy. By contrast the 1980’s were marked by low inflation, low unemployment and strong growth.
In this we are forced to ask the unanswerable question, which is had we not adopted his policies what would have happened? Yes we might not have had an increase in the deficit but at the same time we quite possibly would have continued with the economic doldrums of the 1970’s and accordingly we might well have had an entirely different set of problems.
Now obviously when it comes to the specific policies I’m not likely to convert anyone. If you are a liberal on economics/taxes/etc you’re never going to approve of Reagan. But I do think you have to accept that things would not have necessarily been better absent said policies.
Finally in looking at Reagan there is one thing that I think we all can agree on, which is the fact that he was an inspirational leader. Whether you liked his programs or hated them, you couldn’t help liking the guy and his unabashed optimism and patriotism. At a time when millions of Americans were uncertain about the future he was able to lead and inspire. At a time when millions of people in Eastern Europe lived in tyranny he was able to give them the hope and faith that they would endure, and indeed they did.
As I said from the beginning the purpose of this post was not to deify President Reagan, not only because I do not think he merits it but because I think he would be the first to say so. I wanted to offer a balanced view, one that recognizes his accomplishments (such as success with the Cold War or growing the economy) as well as his failures (the deficit chief among them).
More importantly I hope that we can continue a balanced debate, in the spirit of Reagan and O’Neill.
And I hope that the Republicans in Congress realize that while it is important to stand up for your views it is also important to recognize your limits and to govern together.