The Washington Post pointed out on June 9th that Reagan's economic policies are responsible for our current budget deficit predicament, culminating in VP Cheney's famous quote "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." Did Reagan actually prove that? Well,the article points out
The fiscal shift in the Reagan years was staggering. In January 1981, when Reagan declared the federal budget to be "out of control," the deficit had reached almost $74 billion, the federal debt $930 billion. Within two years, the deficit was $208 billion. The debt by 1988 totaled $2.6 trillion. In those eight years, the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
To some economists, the impact was clear. Interest rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economy slowed, then slipped into recession, and productivity barely advanced. Americans feared their nation had slipped into the shadows of Japan and Germany.
Reagan's "economic policy . . . was a disaster," University of California at Berkeley economic historian J. Bradford DeLong wrote this past weekend on his Web site. "The tax cuts made America a more unequal place, and the deficits slowed economic growth in the 1980s significantly."
The problem with these deficits isn't just economic. Professor Niall Ferguson of New York University's Stern School of Business notes that America's massive military might is underwritten by foreign capital, largely European (including the reviled French) and Japanese. 'This could make for a fragile Pax Americana if foreign investors decide to reduce their stakes in the American economy, possibly trading their dollars for the increasingly vigorous euro,' he writes. (Quoted from the Straits Times, May 5 2003, "Even an Imperial Colossus Needs Friends and Allies"). The problem of deficits is that they make the US dependent on whoever we owe the money too. We see the same sort of problem with our trade imbalance with Japan, and our betrothel to OPEC even when we know that our oil money is flowing directly into the hands of terrorists.
Reagan also unfortunately contributed to the deep polarization of America. If Reagan re-energized the Republican party, it was by exploited racial tensions in the south to convert the Dixiecrats permenantly (everyone, especially african-americans, knows how he kicked off his presidential campaign with a ringing endorsement of "states rights"). In addition, Reagan's adminstration's first response to the AIDS epidemic was to mock gays and lesbians. Finally, Reagan's political base was a significant realignment from the traditional Republican stronghold. Businessmen of all stripes and "Rockefeller Republicans" were replaced by neo-conservatives and religious activists. The rise of Reaganism can be seen as the direct cause of the fall of the centrist wing of the Republican party.
Reagan's values also represented the epitome of "politics over principle." It could be said that Reagan had no principles at all aside from acceding to the popular will. The New Republic wrote on January 9th 1989
"Critics of Reaganism have to come to terms with this fact. Reagan's greatest political skill was his obedience. Conservatives who puzzle over why he failed to cash in his popularity chips for real policy changes have simply gotten it the wrong way round: Reagan produced the policies for the popularity chips. When Americans wanted him to cut taxes, he did so. When they wanted him to stand up to the Soviets, he obliged. When they hankered for détente, he offered them Geneva, then Reykjavik, and finally Moscow. The only crisis of his presidency came when he traded arms with people Americans profoundly distrusted. Even then, like a nervous, otherwise exemplary employee caught engaged in creative accounting, his instinct was to tell his bosses--and to believe--that he hadn't done it.
On almost all the issues on which Americans disagreed with him, Reagan caved. On social conservatism--on abortion, women's rights, affirmative action--he yielded to popular edginess. Even acts of daring were by popular demand: Grenada an attempt to push the polls up after the Lebanon debacle; the Libya raid an attack on an enemy no one could support. Only on protectionism and Central America did Reagan resist the ratings, and even then it was spirited retreat. When real presidential conviction met real congressional opposition and public indifference (over the contras), Reagan's instinct was to push the matter out of politics altogether--and leave it to the devices of Poindexter and North."
Iran-Contra was, by far, the worst example of the type of moral duplicity made in the Reagan administration (and who's ghost seems to be the best manifestation of the "Reagan Legacy" in the W. Bush admin). Selling weapons to an arch-enemy in order to undermine democracy in Latin America. Reagan miscalculated (he thought the US would support the contras as generic "anti-communists"), but the effort was clear: Even democracy itself could be sacrificed in order to look "tough on communism." Today, the Bush administration prostrates itself to such illiberal nations like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Russia, and others in order to bring the maximum rhetorical force to its claims its fighting terror.
This is not to say the Reagan was the sum of all evil in politics. Reagan undoubtedly had a significant role in ending the cold war, he made people proud to be American's again, and for all his faults he did seem to make a geniune effort, as has been often said, "to make sure his adversaries never became his enemies." However, a proper reflection on Reaganism needs to include its faults as well as its glories, and the fact remains that Reaganism is a dangerous political ideology that caused far more harm than good.