The Magazine

Reagan in Retrospect

How the 40th president looks to history.

May 23, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 34 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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There are lots of contradictory judgments that are difficult to sort out. On one page, we hear of Reagan's incremental centrism, and on the next page we are told of "Reagan's updated, more enlightened version of nineteenth-century Social Darwinism," a silly caricature that hasn't seen much daylight since Haynes Johnson peddled it in Sleepwalking Through History. Troy endorses the view that "Reagan helped leach America's 'social capital,' pollute America's 'social ecology,' and diminish Americans' sense of citizenship and community." He ushered in a "new era of greed and ostentation." Troy deprecates the prideful flag-waving that occurred in the 1980s as superficial and jingoistic rather than as a meaningful indicator of renewed citizenship. The prosperity of the 1980s was mostly an illusion--Paul Krugman told us so!--that the new Gilded Age soaps like Dynasty and Dallas abetted. (Troy's account of supply-side economics is completely botched, though given the Jesuitical fissures among supply-siders, this is forgivable.)

And yet, with all this ruin and moral decay, at the end Troy concludes that "all kinds of things actually improved [in the 1980s]. There was also a community-mindedness, an altruism, a goodness that was and remains characteristically American." So, where are we supposed to come down on the 1980s? It doesn't help when Troy says things such as the decade generated a "mass epidemic of psychic distress" without offering a single piece of data to substantiate--or even explain--this kind of sweeping assertion.

Troy's efforts to minimize Reagan can be best seen in his recurrent formulation that Reagan's contribution to a positive trend was "mostly negative." A good example is inflation, where Troy writes that "Reagan's achievement was mostly negative--he let the Fed do its job," partly through "his natural passivity." While narrowly true, this shows Troy's churlishness. As Milton Friedman has remarked repeatedly, "No other president would have stood by and let [Paul] Volcker push the economy into recession by restricting the money supply so sharply," which suggests a positive rather than a negative quality. And no one familiar with the story of Reagan's first meeting with Volcker in early 1981 would use the word "passive" to describe Reagan's relationship with the Fed.

In sharp contrast to Morning in America, John Ehrman's The Eighties: America in the Age of Reagan offers a more controlled narrative that has the added benefit of copious references and real data to substantiate its judgments. The best way of grasping the gulf between Morning in America and The Eighties is to see how each book handles an important anomaly of the Reagan story. Both books note that Reagan's 1980 electoral vote landslide obscured the fact that he assumed office with the lowest public approval ratings of any incoming president ever. Troy notes that "Reagan lacked the mandate for change that most people thought he now had," while Ehrman similarly writes that "the belief that Reagan's victory represented the start of a revolution overstated the case." The 1980 vote, both authors note, was more a repudiation of Carter than an affirmative mandate for Reagan.

But could not the same have been said of Franklin Roosevelt's victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932, especially since FDR campaigned on an orthodox platform of balancing the budget that gave no hint of the shape of the New Deal to come? In sharp contrast to FDR, Reagan came to office with the best-defined and best-advertised governing program of any incoming president in the 20th century. Troy writes that "the president-elect had set off to create a mandate--or an illusion of one--that the voters had refused to provide." A few pages later he adds, "The American people had not given him the mandate he sought, so he conjured one up."

Troy's word choices--"illusion" and "conjure"--make it seem as though American voters had no idea how Reagan would govern (or were perhaps against it), and that Reagan generated his impressive political momentum by some kind of legerdemain.

Realignments are determined by whether the winning party coming out of an election produces a new governing philosophy that enables it to win an enduring majority in successive elections. It is impossible to make out from Troy's manifold contradictions where he comes down on this question. Ehrman sets up his consideration of how Reagan generated his political momentum with an excellent synopsis of the collapse of liberalism in the 1960s and 1970s. Ehrman understands that a large part of the reason for Reagan's soft incoming poll numbers was the ideological vacuum in American politics that was open for Reagan to fill.