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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Where Troy sees "conjuring" and imagery, Ehrman sees a substantial governing philosophy being asserted. Ehrman argues by the end of his book that Reagan succeeded in establishing conservatism as the dominant political ideology in America: "At the start of the 1980s, conservatism had been the home of political outsiders. At the end of the decade, it dominated American politics and set the country's agenda, while liberalism searched for a way to confront it effectively." He is careful to qualify this judgment with the proper caveats about the nonideological nature of American politics and the gradual nature of change in American public life.

Along with his supple political judgments, Ehrman offers a lucid and balanced assessment of economic issues. He corrects the record or offers contrary evidence on nearly every economic controversy of the time, with the partial exception, oddly enough, of Reagan's income tax rate cuts, whose full effects Ehrman covers much less completely than other issues. But his account sparkles on the budget and trade deficits, the wave of corporate mergers and takeovers, "competitiveness" and industrial policy (which, he shrewdly observes, hurt Democrats), income inequality and income mobility, the supposed decline of the middle class, and the Gramm-Rudman deficit act, which he calls "one of the most disgraceful and irresponsible laws ever passed."

Ehrman offers the best discussion of economic issues of the period since Richard McKenzie's 1994 account, What Went Right in the 1980s. In contrast to Troy's equivocal conclusions, Ehrman is confident enough to say that "except for the displacement of lower-skilled workers, almost all these [economic] changes left Americans better off at the end of the Reagan years than at their beginning." For his careful judgment of economics alone, Ehrman's work deserves to become one of the standard reference works for the Reagan period, not least for his 69 pages of copious source notes and data tables in the appendix.

Liberals mostly left Reagan alone during the second half of the 1990s and up to his death last year, in part because their energies were absorbed propping up Bill Clinton and attacking George W. Bush, and in part because his tragic illness put him off limits, to a certain extent. The rapid, favorable reappraisal of Reagan that occurred as we learned of his original writings and appreciated anew his achievements would not go unchallenged for very long, however. The contrast between Morning in America and The Eighties shows that the revisionist wars over Reagan and his legacy will be just as divisive and acrimonious as the contemporary arguments were during that decade.

Steven F. Hayward, the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980.