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FEULNER: Revealing Reagan’s true legacy

The Gipper inspired Americans - and got results

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It's been more than six years since our nation bid farewell to Ronald Reagan, born 100 years ago this month. Yet it seems at times as though he never left.

Consider how Reagan's name surfaced repeatedly after the most recent State of the Union address as pundits - both liberal and conservative - weighed the speech's effectiveness. His Photoshopped image is on the cover of Time, his arm draped around President Obama.

"If Obama has bounced back from the drubbing his party took at the polls last November," Richard Norton Smith writes in the magazine, "it is in no small measure because he has been acting positively Reaganesque as of late."

Acting, perhaps, but not governing. It's worth reminding ourselves as we mark the centennial of Reagan's birth what he accomplished - and how.

It's important to do this in part because much of what passes for praise of Reagan is veiled criticism. Reagan is hailed, for example, as a great communicator. And with good reason: Few politicians could match his rhetorical skill and his ability to articulate great themes that resonated with the American people.

But that's where many on the left stop. What they really seek to emulate is not his policies or his agenda. They hope that if they study his methods, a little of his "magic" will rub off on the liberal policies that have proved such a hard sell over the past two years. Dress the liberal agenda in Reaganesque terms, and the electorate is yours, right?

What condescending nonsense. It wasn't just Reagan's ability to communicate that endeared him to millions of Americans. It was the fact that he was articulating their most deeply cherished beliefs. It went well beyond the optimistic outlook - which, although welcome, is something any president can attempt. It was because he spoke in direct terms that avoided the usual buzzword approach we get from Washington.

He used that approach to say what many Americans thought: Taxes are too high - let's cut them. Inflation is too high - let's tame it. The Cold War can be won, not managed, and the world made safer for everybody - let's do it.

The fable of the left (the hard left, anyway - many others are coming around) is that this was all smoke and mirrors. But the facts tell a different story. Starting from the "stagflation" mess his predecessor handed him, Reagan created a genuine economic miracle. After a three-stage tax cut and a reduction in government growth, our economy began to expand - by 31 percent from 1983 to 1989 in real terms. Americans of every class - rich, middle-class and poor - saw their wealth increase.

It was our nation's longest peacetime expansion in a long and prosperous history. By decade's end, we had added the economic equivalent of a new Germany to our gross national product. Inflation was cut by two-thirds, interest rates by half. Unemployment dropped to the lowest level in 15 years.

Even before the end of his first term, the signs of distinct progress were unmistakable. Small wonder that Reagan's famous "Morning in America" campaign resonated with so many voters, leading to a landslide re-election in 1984. Starting from the "stagflation" mess his predecessor handed him, Reagan created a genuine economic miracle.

People loved him for it. That's why so many politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, seek to portray themselves as latter-day Reagans. To decide whether they deserve this mantle, however, consider this quote from his farewell address:

" 'We the people' tell the government what to do; it doesn't tell us. 'We the people' are the driver, the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast."

Only a politician who agrees with this - and governs accordingly - can be considered Reagan's true heir.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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