Ronald Reagan was, in many respects, an ordinary man. He had a number of good qualities — he had strong beliefs, and he was affable, eloquent and charming.
But many others have these traits. One cannot say of Mr. Reagan — as one can of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill — that he possessed qualities so rare and outstanding they evidently qualified him for greatness.
Yet the 1980s were, by any account, an extraordinary period in world history, a turning point. Inflation was subdued, after running in double-digits in the late 1970s. The energy crisis came to an abrupt halt, and gas prices plummeted.
After a period of stagnation and even recession, the economy turned around and went into an unabated juggernaut of growth. The Dow Jones average tripled. The silicon revolution began transforming the way we live and work. The Berlin Wall came crashing down, and the Soviet empire began crumbling. The current era of peace and prosperity was launched.
One, maybe two, of these outcomes can be attributed to chance. But all of them?
These were the results Mr. Reagan intended. In many cases, such as the Soviet collapse, he repeatedly predicted what would happen. He put into effect policies to bring it about. And he achieved his desired result. The big question is not whether Mr. Reagan did these things, but how. How did an apparently ordinary fellow generate the extraordinary events that occurred during his presidency?
One secret of Mr. Reagan’s success was that throughout his career he pursued his convictions with bold disregard for the two most powerful forces in politics: the American people and the elites. Today’s politicians of both parties are obsessed with what the American people think. They instruct their pollsters, “Go and find out the views of the American people, so that we can choreograph our positions to bring them into line with public sentiment.” Undoubtedly many of them believe this is a marvelous demonstration of democracy in action.
But it was not the American Founders’ view of democracy, nor was it Ronald Reagan’s. Mr. Reagan knew we live in a representative democracy where the American people choose leaders, whose job is to lead. In many cases, this means acting without consulting the people.
Many times during the 1980s, Mr. Reagan came on television and said something like, “My fellow Americans, I have just signed an executive order removing gasoline price controls.” Or, “My fellow Americans, yesterday I bombed Libya.” In other words, Mr. Reagan typically did something, then told us why he did it and asked for our support. So Mr. Reagan did seek the approval of the American people, but not necessarily prior to pursuing a course of action.
One of Mr. Reagan’s first goals, when he came to the presidency, was to defeat runaway inflation. He supported a very tight monetary policy, administered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, to squeeze inflation out of the economy. The harsh medicine worked: Inflation dropped to 3 percent and has scarcely reared its ugly head since. But the country plunged into a recession. Interest rates soared, poverty rose, unemployment reached intolerable levels. It was the worst economic crisis since the Depression.
Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin told me he was walking outside the Oval Office with Mr. Reagan and told him his approval rating had plummeted. Mr. Reagan, who cared about such things, asked how bad it was. Mr. Wirthlin said his public support was down to 35 percent. Mr. Reagan said: “Well Dick, I think it’s time for you to arrange for me to be shot again.”
Another key to Mr. Reagan’s success was his willingness to ignore the elites, even in his own party. When Mr. Reagan wanted to cut taxes to energize economic growth, and to boost defense spending to invite the Soviets into an arms race he didn’t think they couldn’t win, his own advisers like Martin Feldstein and David Stockman warned his actions would produce “$200 billion deficits as far as the eye can see.”
Mr. Reagan said he wanted to balance the budget, but not at the expense of his tax or defense program. As rhetoric about the deficit reached apocalyptic proportions, Mr. Reagan resorted to quips. “I’m not worried about the deficit,” he said, “It’s big enough to take care of itself.”
Amazingly, time proved the wise men of both parties wrong and Mr. Reagan right. Contrary to the warnings of countless economists and editorialists, the deficit did no measurable harm to the economy. In the mid-1990s it simply disappeared, silencing shrill warnings our children and grandchildren would be reduced to slavery to pay off the debt.
Once again, Mr. Reagan’s policies were largely responsible: The Reagan boom proved a bonanza for the treasury, and the end of the Cold War produced hundreds of billions of dollars in defense savings, propelling the budget into a surplus.