Ronald Reagan changed the political landscape in ways that, just a few years ago, seemed unthinkable. Today even liberals use words that eight years ago would have branded them as reactionary turncoats.
Even his most ardent opponents acknowledge that Mr. Reagan dramatically changed the tone of the nation. Jimmy Carter, in a 1979 speech, said America suffered from a "malaise." America was also suffering from Sky- high interest rates, inflation, and unemployment, and its prestige abroad had hit rock bottom-not things that inspire revelry.
What Mr. Carter didn't say was that part of a president's job is to help shape national attitudes. If America was on a "downer," he shared the blame. On came President Reagan, saying, "It's morning in America," 'Jobs and growth instead of tax and spend," and pledging to free the entrepreneurial spirit from excessive taxation and regulation.
The establishment intelligentsia dismissed such rhetoric as corny and simplistic, as indeed it would have been had there been no substance behind it. As it was, the president's rhetorical skills helped restore the image of forceful, dynamic leadership to the office of the presidency, and this was crucial in galvanizing support for his policies.
The result? Simply compare today's "misery index" the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates-with what it was when Mr. Reagan took office. For that matter, compare it to that of West Germany, often held up as a model for the United States to emulate. As so many Europeans have come to realize, the economic statistics show that whatever Mr. Reagan did worked far better than their governments' policies.
One can still hear talk of "the necessity" of raising taxes, but the Reagan years have made it impossible to repress the snickers. The least we should have learned in the last eight years is that cutting taxes and minimizing regulation spur economic growth and generate revenue.
Whopping deficits develop if spending rises faster than revenues. But the federal deficit has grown not because taxes were cut but because spending, even spending on social programs, wasn't cut enough. The president's chief failure in domestic policy was his unwillingness to use his veto power to force Congress to revise its so-called budget process.
By transferring responsibilities from Washington to the states and cities, Mr. Reagan showed that they can be laboratories where a wide variety of public-policy experiments can be carried out with flexibility and sensitivity to local conditions. The federal bureaucracy, by contrast, is remote, elephantine, arthritic.
America Standing Tall
Some of the least-noted of Mr. Reagan's accomplishments were in foreign policy. Arms control, Nicaragua, and, in recent years, the Iran/Contra affair have received the most attention. Mr. Reagan's inability to persuade Congress to prevent the Sandinistas from solidifying a second Communist regime in this hemisphere-not the Iran/Contra affair-was the president's worst foreign policy failure.
But in the meantime, passing almost unnoticed, has been a worldwide spread of democratic capitalism that in no small measure owes itself to Mr. Reagan's commitment. The democratic tide has swept Central and South America and Asia. The Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea all have liberalized their societies to degrees that would have seemed incredible in the 1970s, and may not have been possible without the administration's finetuned support.
Only Grenada has been liberated during the Reagan era. But no nation has fallen to Communism, and the Soviets have pulled out of Afghanistan.
The jury is still out on the president's arms control initiatives. Serious questions remain about verification and compliance. In the long run, what will be more important than any arms control treaty or the strengthening of United States armed forces is the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Technology offers the possibility of a system designed to defend ourselves from enemy attack instead of constantly building more weapons to insure that we can retaliate if attacked. SDI research is not a certain path to world peace any more than cancer research is a certain path to health, but the goals are no less worth the price. Mr. Reagan's initiative could be historic.
It is easy to forget that one can't reverse the direction of the Washington elephant overnight or even in eight years. Considering that Mr. Reagan swam against the tide of congressional opposition, his accomplishments are all the more remarkable.
His agenda, to be sure, is far from finished. Federal spending still rages out of control. Business and capital gains taxes are still too high. Initiatives to reform Medicare and Social Security have been inadequate. The Reagan Doctrine has yet to liberate even one nation from Communism. SDI suffers from inadequate funding. These must be top priorities for George Bush.
Presidents leave lasting legacies by establishing new frameworks for public policy debates. Franklin D. Roosevelt's policies culminated with Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs 21 years after FDR's death. The new framework that Mr. Reagan created has spawned a generation of new institutions staffed by young people who have abandoned the delusions of their counterparts in the 1960s. just as the Roosevelt era gave way only eight years ago, the full flower of Ronald Reagan's era will come in the next century.