In some quiet bedroom in suburban Los Angeles, former president Ronald Reagan turns 93 today. Whatever celebrating there is will be muted, given the ravages Alzheimer’s disease has reportedly taken on the man most of us remember as robust, smiling, optimistic and every inch what people seem to want in a president.
But even if Reagan himself is now unaware of it, Americans will probably always be celebrating Reagan’s two terms (1981-1989) as president.
Whatever reservations the liberal chattering classes and nanny-statists had about Reagan — about his conservative political philosophy, allegedly substandard intellect and long-term legacy — the American people admired and loved him. In Reagan they not only saw a president of common decency and middle-American values, but of steady and heartfelt convictions, who was called to service by high principle, rather than ego gratification.
Reagan’s guiding convictions are well known: a belief in modest and frugal government, and the supremacy of the individual over the state; support for lower taxes, free trade and free market capitalism; an unapologetic opposition to the Soviet system and its global spread. And he brought those ideas to Washington just in the nick of time.
When he took office in 1981, the world cowered before the armed nuclear might of the Soviet Union. He branded it the “Evil Empire” — to howls of disapproval from the blame-America crowd and communist accomodationists — and after his eight years in office, the Berlin Wall fell and the empire crumbled. Reagan aggressively countered a growing Soviet missile threat against Western Europe, over the protests of disarmament types that would have preferred appeasement.
His administration supported efforts to counter Soviet expansionism into Central America, Africa and Afghanistan. And he refused to barter away America’s dream of a defense against ballistic nuclear missiles in a now-famous meeting with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev — in what some have said was the beginning of the end for the evil empire.
He responded to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” by cutting taxes and saw the economy flower on his watch. Even the deficits, which people still attack him for, were reduced to $150 billion in each of his last three years in office. His tax cuts, affirming supply-side theories, brought surging revenue to government while an emboldened Congress sprinted ahead with even greater spending, producing the very deficits his detractors in politics and media hang on him.
Reagan reminded us repeatedly that “government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” It was his way of saying that Washington had outgrown the intent of the Founders and was taking on responsibilities that were not within the purview of the federal government.
Such actions and ideas had an appeal that crossed partisan lines, leading to a phenomenon, the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” that changed the political landscape and forced the Democratic Party to move modestly away from the worst of its liberal excesses, in a bid to stem the exodus of mainstream voters.
Today, sadly, both parties seem to have forgotten or repudiated the lessons of the Reagan presidency. Republicans, whom Reagan helped make the majority party, are acting like Democrats, and Democrats, in desperation to differentiate themselves from big-government Republicans, are swinging farther to the left and in danger of again leaving American moderates behind.
Ultimately, however, and happily, Reagan’s meaning and historic significance have begun to transcend petty partisan divisions. We’re certain that as time goes on, his claim to greatness as an American president will only be solidified.
Happy 93rd birthday, President Reagan.