Ronald Reagan’s Legacy

Column No. 16 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - June 10, 2004

Ronald Reagan is gone, but as for long as the history of the Untied States is written, he will never be forgotten.  For he (or if you believe some historians, his handlers and script-writers) changed the U.S. and its politics in fundamental ways.  Reagan left behind many admirers, some of whom admired him for what he seemed to be, and some, particularly among the U.S. power elite, who admired him for what he really was.  He also left behind numerous critics.  I count my self among them.

From my perspective, the changes that Reagan and the Reaganites wrought upon our country and indeed the world have brought, are bringing, and will be bringing for the foreseeable future, many, many negative outcomes.  I list those that are to my mind the most important below. Of that list, in my view the single most important one was the change that the Reaganites brought to American politics.  They made what before them had been considered the Far Right respectable.  They firmly placed what before Reagan had been viewed as an agenda well to the Right of the mainstream of American politics at the center of those politics.  That agenda was that of the Goldwater Republicans, considered so far-out only back in 1964, combined with a heavy dose of rising Christian Rightist religious fundamentalism.

Thus, they made Goldwaterism, which had been crushed in the Johnson landslide of 1964, the touchstone of modern American politics.  They made a right-wing Democrat like Bill Clinton seem like a far-leftist.  (Bill Clinton a right-wing Democrat?  Well, consider that among his major achievements were the bringing of the New Deal’s aid for mothers with dependent children program to an end and the announcement in a State of the Union Address that “the era of big government” [the only kind of government that can deal with big problems] was over.)  The Reaganites made “liberal” a dirty word.  They created the atmosphere in which, eventually, a woman (Ann Coulter) who, in ordinary times, would not have much more to offer than long-blond hair and legs that look good in the short skirts she always seems to wear, a political “authority” who could go much further than that: pronounce all liberals as “traitors.”  In short, it was the Reaganites who gave us George W. Bush.

Last Sunday in the Junkies Speak section of The Political Junkies, European Editor Michael Carmichael presented a beautiful critique that in the guise of a conventional obituary highlighted Reagan’s major negative achievements.  But he did it with gentle elegance.  If you want to read a sharp attack, take a look at the column by the journalist Greg Palast entitled “Killer, Coward, Conman --- Good Riddance Ronnie Reagan: More Proof that Only the Good Die Young”

My comment, more of a simple listing of Reagan’s major negative achievements, falls somewhere between the stools of gentle and harsh.  For those readers who would like my columns to be shorter, well, this is one.  For those readers who would like me to stop speculating about possible conspiracies that have possibly occurred and possibly are ongoing in the Georgite Regime, well, I am going to do that (except when I am really sorely tempted to).

However, in this column, the grandest conspiracy ever hatched by a sitting American Administration is going to be mentioned.  Sorry folks, but Iran/Contra really did occur, it really was a conspiracy, it really would not have come to light had that ill-fated pilot who ran guns for it one way and drugs the other not been shot down, and it is really documented at great length in the long-forgotten Final Report of the Republican Special Prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh.

And so, on to the list. “AOL News, June 6, 2002.  ‘Leaders Say Reagan Left His Mark on the World.’ “He sure did.  Here are some of the things most of the mainstream media won't be putting on the list anytime soon.

1.         He firmly established racism as the center of the modern Republican electoral strategy, confirming that the Nixon “Southern Strategy” of 1968 would be permanently ensconced there.  This initiative was symbolized exquisitely when he began his 1980 Presidential campaign at Philadelphia, MI, the site of the Cheney-Goodman-Schwerner civil rights murders of 1964.  Reagan, the master of the “wink and the nod” means of communicating, did not have to say anything more.

2.        Reagan firmly established anti-choice as the Republican position of choice in the matter of belief as to when life begins.  This was something new for mainstream Republicans who up until then had made much about keeping government out of private matters to the extent possible. In fact, Reagan’s choice for Vice-President, George H.W. Bush and his wife had been long-time members of the Board of Directors of the Texas branch of Planned Parenthood.  Of course, that highly principled mainstream Republican, and his wife, quickly resigned their positions to take an openly anti-choice stance during the election.  Paul Erich and other leading Christian Rightists frequently complained that Reagan “didn’t do anything” about their agenda, “he only talked about it.”  Well, now they’ve got someone who is “doing something about it,” and Reagan paved the way for George Bush, II.

3.         The Reaganites introduced ahistoricity into American politics for good.  The Right-Wing has made much hay out of this trend over the years, by frequently referring to the period of “American decline since the 60s,” tracing it back to the “outbreak” of feminism and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  They of course do not note that for all except 12 years since that time, the President has been a Republican and when it has been a Democrat, it has been one of the right-wing variety (sorry, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton fans, but that is what the Democratic Leadership Council is all about, openly).

4.         "Reaganomics" created the myth that tax-cuts can lead to prosperity and reduced Federal deficits.  Reaganite tax-cuts, which went to the same folks who are benefiting sop much from the Bush tax cuts, lead to massive Federal deficits, to a mini-recession in the mid-80s that the Reaganites managed to ignore, and eventually to the Bush I recession that lead to his defeat.

5.         Related to “4,” Reaganite electoral strategy built upon the success of the anti-tax Proposition 13 in California in 1978.  That strategy succeeded in changing the political discussions about what government should be doing with tax revenues, in other words about government programs, to the amounts of the revenues themselves without reference to what the money was paying for.  Goldwater himself had realized that when he talked about government programs he wanted to get rid of he always lost.  The Reaganites figured out how to do it by making the focus tax cuts not government revenues and their purposes.  The Democrats still have not come up with an effective means of dealing with that one.

6.         Related to “5,” he established the modern Republican approach to Federal spending: cutting it on everything they possibly can except the military, prisons, and favors for wealthy contributors, while reducing tax revenues to the greatest extent possible with tax cuts for the rich.  This leads to the creation of massive deficits that would force any future Democratic Administration to, if it could, raise taxes again only to deal with deficits (see Clinton).

7.         He created the first initiative for the totally wasteful weapons system "Star-Wars."  Back in the days of the Cold War, it was designed as a first-strike weapon, of course.  Now it is just designed as a revenue builder for Georgite supporters in the aerospace industry.

8.         Reagan established mean-ness, every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost, as an acceptable attribute.  Did people get it?  They sure did.  I remember listening to a selection of person-on-the-street interviews in Washington, DC, after the John Hinckley attack.  A woman, with what sounded to me like an Afro-American accent, in response to the question “what was wrong with John Hinckley,” said, “he missed.”

9.         With Iran/Contra, Reagan established the precedent that (Republican) Presidents can break Federal law and they will get away with it.  The Iran/Contra scheme directly violated a piece of Federal legislation called the “Boland Amendment.”  It prohibited any US-government direct or indirect interference with the democratically elected Sandanista government of Nicaragua.  The Congressional hearings were a sham.  Reagan clearly committed or at least clearly presided over the commission of an impeachable offense.  But when it came time to form the Joint Committee to investigate the mess, the then-obscure junior Senator from Massachusetts who had gotten the ball rolling, John Kerry, along with Kennedy, Leahy and any other progressive Democrats in the House and Senate, were kept of the Committee by agreement of the Democratic leadership.  “Couldn’t have another impeachment, coming so soon,” they said.

And so, Democrats like then-Congressman Lee Hamilton, made sure that the hearings were relatively benign, and, by giving Oliver North immunity from any prosecution based on his testimony, provided him with a nation-wide platform on which to make speeches justifying the whole action (that just happened to violate the law).  By the way, that’s the same Lee Hamilton who is the Democratic co-chair of the so far pretty mild 9/11 Investigating Committee.

10.        One of Reagan’s first acts when he became President was to cancel, to the extent he could, all Federal government contracts for the development of energy sources alternative to fossil fuels.  Thus the Untied States is now about 25 years behind where it could have been if this top extractive industry policy matter were not at the top of Reagan’s action list.  Did anybody say Cheney’s energy task force?

11.        As to personal attributes, Reagan showed that a not-very-smart, mildly educated, and generally ignorant man can become an Acting President if he is a Right-Winger who command big campaign contributions from corporate special interests, telegenic, speaks well from cue cards, and has the right agents, managers, and promoters.  He also showed that a man with a serious mental illness can be maintained in the Presidency if he is a Republican and has the right agents, managers, and promoters.

12.               Oh yes, he did win what will someday be called “The 75 Years War (1918-1993) Against the Soviet Union by Western Capitalism,” spending into the ground an arteriosclerotic governmental system that was well on its way to collapse anyway, while creating massive Federal deficits at home to do it.

What a record!  What a man!