Revisiting Ronald Reagan
By Jerome Grossman
All of the current Republican candidates for president regularly and repeatedly invoke the name and the spirit of Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the party, hoping to bless themselves by adoration of his life and work. Even one Democrat, Barack Obama has used the spirit of Reagan as an endorsement of change saying to a Nevada newspaper that Reagan offered a "sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
Reagan did change American politics by assembling a coalition composed of social conservatives, national security hawks, pro-business advocates, anti-tax activists, and religious fundamentalists. To the social conservatives, Reagan attacked the federal welfare system using manufactured stories of welfare mothers driving in pink Cadillacs to pick up their checks. To the national security hawks, he got tough with the Soviet Union, threatening the “evil empire” with nuclear annihilation. To the pro-business advocates, he relaxed antitrust enforcement and listened to corporate lobbyists. To anti-tax activists, he dramatically reduced the tax rate, demeaned the Internal Revenue Service; Eisenhower's top rate was 91%, Kennedy reduced it to 70%, Reagan and GOP successors cut it again by half.
But Reagan's unique contribution was to motivate the religious fundamentalists into serious political activity. At a political function in 1971, for example, he revealed a belief and familiarity in religious millennialism: “Everything is falling into place. It can't be too long now. Ezekiel says that fire and brimstone will be rained upon the enemies of God's people. That must mean they’ll be destroyed by nuclear weapons. They exist now and they never did in the past.” Then Reagan pointed out that Gog, the enemy of God and Israel is Russia, which “has set itself against God.” This echoes what the Rev Pat Robertson had been preaching and writing, that the invention of nuclear weapons should be welcomed as a sign of the immediacy of the Second Coming.
Reagan's notoriety and popularity increased as an icon of entertainment, bolstered by his acting career, his hosting of television programs, his work as spokesman for General Electric, and most importantly his electoral success in California. Some regarded him, however, as a washed up actor, an ignoramus and a tool of the rabid right. He suffered much of the same criticism of his intellectual capacity as George W. Bush.
Reagan did change America, as Bill Clinton said in 1991, while running for president,by exalting “private gain over public obligation, special interests over the common good, wealth and fame over work and family.” The great failure of the Clinton administration was that it failed to change the Reagan scenario. Now, the Democrats will have another opportunity but the campaigns so far have not spelled out the changes in foreign and domestic policy that will steer the nation away from Reaganism.