Ronald Reagan changed American politics by making conservatism and tax-cutting, free-market economics popular with middle-class voters, and ending the Cold War by defeating the “Evil Empire” with a muscular military that resonates throughout defense policy today, former advisers and aides to the 40th president said yesterday.
With his declaration of “Government is not the solution, it’s the problem,” President Reagan took office in 1981 and immediately pursued the underpinnings of his long-held conservative beliefs: lowering taxes, curtailing government regulation over the economy and attacking government waste and fraud.
“Reagan changed that to a debate over how much of what the American people earn would they be allowed to keep,” said Gary Bauer, Mr. Reagan’s domestic-policy adviser in the White House, said yesterday.
“He argued if people are allowed to keep what they earn, you will get the revenues from economic growth that will keep the government running and that democratic capitalism ought to produce.”
The result of his conservative economic theory called “supply-side economics,” a belief that tax cuts would stimulate the economy, has been an enduring success and continues to be at the center of American politics today through the tax cuts that President Bush has enacted.
“By every measure — the size of the economy, stock averages — the period since 1981 till now has been one of unprecedented growth, with minor setbacks,” said Donald P. Hodel, Mr. Reagan’s energy secretary from 1981 to 1985 and his interior secretary from 1985 to 1989.
But, Mr. Hodel said, Mr. Reagan’s greatest accomplishment was “his determination to call the Soviet Union an ‘Evil Empire’ over the almost unanimous opposition from his official advisers — his speechwriters loved it — and to say, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’”
Some historians believe that Moscow’s attempt to keep pace with Mr. Reagan’s trillion-dollar arms buildup, including the never-completed “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, was a big factor in the communist superpower’s ultimate collapse, which occurred after Mr. Reagan had left office.
Most conservatives who worked for him or who supported his aim not just to hold the line on communist expansion, but to roll it back, believed the actual demise of Soviet communism would come so quickly as it did, and without a shot being fired by either superpower at the time.
“If you worked for him, there was no doubt from Day One that he wanted to bring down Soviet communism on his watch,” said Mr. Bauer.
“It wasn’t just the missile-defense system he began or confronting the Soviets in Afghanistan. But it was the speeches he gave reminding us who we were up against, the focus of evil in the modern world at a time when Western elites in the media and academia were in denial about communism.”
But for many Reaganites, his greatest legacy was a political one, by making conservative Republican ideas popular with many voters who had voted Democratic but embraced the upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial economics that Mr. Reagan preached in his political speeches.
“He has a whole sector of the electorate named after him, and that is the Reagan Democrats, people who were socially conservative, many of them blue-collar workers, lots of Catholics and many ethnic voters who can trace their ancestry from Eastern Europe,” said Frank Donatelli, who was White House political director under Mr. Reagan.
“These were people who had been reliably Democratic since the New Deal, and Reagan’s great political contribution was to make these people behavioral Republicans,” Mr. Donatelli said last night. “So that by the end of the Reagan decade, the Republican Party pulled even with the Democrats in party identification. Reagan substantially leveled the playing field by the end of his presidency.”
Mr. Reagan was also remembered for his innate sense of optimism about America, a trait that helped him lead a dispirited country through the dark days of the 1981-82 recession that was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“One thing Reagan will be remembered for will be that he restored the climate of optimism, the old American can-do spirit that seemed sadly lacking ever since Watergate,” said Lyn Nofziger, who was Mr. Reagan’s first press secretary and one of his chief political advisers.
“He’s still remembered so affectionately today by a good part of the American people because he made them feel good about themselves,” Mr. Nofziger said.
Former Reagan administration officials said they were struck by Mr. Reagan’s ability as president to make it OK in America to actively oppose ideologies that promote collectivism over the ultimate worth of the individual and the worship of God.
“He came to the presidency with vision for our country to advance the liberty and opportunities of the people here and around the world by getting government off their backs and under control,” said Becky Norton Dunlop, who was deputy assistant to the president for personnel in the Reagan White House.
She said what made Mr. Reagan a great president was that he achieved the three main goals he laid out at the beginning of his presidency: Restore America’s national defense, economic prosperity and hope for the future.
He made it, as one of his campaign ads proclaimed, “morning again in America.”
“Our country has lost one of its greatest presidents. Ronald Reagan revitalized the economy, rebuilt our national defense capabilities, and revived the spirits of the American people,” said Edwin I. Meese III, a longtime Reagan aide served as attorney general.