Ronald Reagan was the 40th President of the United States and the 33rd Governor of California. As president, Reagan implemented bold new political and economic initiatives. His supply-side economic policies, dubbed “Reaganomics,” (later called “Voodoo economics” by George H. Bush) included deregulation and substantial tax cuts implemented in 1981. In his first term he took a hard line against organized labor, and ordered military actions in Grenada. He was reelected in 1984 and his second term was marked by the bombing of Libya and the Iran-Contra affair. The president also ordered a massive military buildup in an arms race with the Soviet Union, forgoing the strategy of disarment by Carter. He publicly described the USSR as an “evil empire” and supported anti-Communist movements worldwide. (Kuznick, 463-468).
Reagan is held up as a hero in the conservative Republican movement. However, his actual record is far from exemplary. Reagan is largely credited with first implementing the concept of “supply side economics” which suggested that if we cut taxes on the rich, there will be a “trickle down” effect benefiting all aspects of society. Regan also ran up one the largest budget deficits in the history of the country at that time, and increased the national debt more than any other president before him. (Rowland, 127-128)
The term “welfare queen” became a catchphrase during anti-welfare dialogue brought up by Reagan in his 1984 campaign. The term came under criticism for its use as a political tool and for its derogatory connotations. Criticism focused on the fact that individuals committing welfare fraud were, in reality, a very small percentage of those legitimately receiving welfare. His discription of the typical black woman from Chicago’s South Side was racist and simply not factually correct. (Rowland, 189).
Despite Reagan’s own son being gay, in 1982 Reagan signed a Defense Department directive 1332.14 that stated, “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” and persons who engaged in homosexual acts or stated that they are homosexual or bisexual are to be discharged. The way Reagan handled the AID’s epidemic spreading across America was also very anti-gay. Following discovery of the first cases in 1981, it soon became clear a national health crisis was developing. But President Reagan’s response was “halting and ineffective,” according to his biographer Lou Cannon. Those infected initially with this mysterious disease, mostly gay men, found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility from their president. AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate and discrimination. Falwell said “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.” (Kuznick, 485-489).
Reagan gutted social welfare, dismantled the mental healthcare system which drastically increased the homeless population, ignored the AIDS crisis and significantly increased spending for the failing War on Drugs, but none of these social catastrophe’s could compare to his ineptitude on foreign policy and economic incompetence.
The Iran-Contra treason was a disaster to say the least. The summary is this, people under Reagan sold guns to Iran to free hostages in Lebanon. They then took the money from selling the guns and used it to finance a rebellion against a communist government in Nicaragua. When it was found out, the people running the show destroyed a bunch of documents including any that would have proved Reagan knew. Congress and a special commission investigated and concluded that they couldn’t prove Reagan knew. Reagan lied to Congress, setting the standard for avoiding responsibility, the “I don’t recall” approach. Reagan got a huge drop in approval ratings, but within two years they’re pretty close to where they were. (Rowland, 196-197)
Reagan’s supply-side economics (lower taxes on rich, and it will somehow “trickle-down” to the poor) has been proven to not work at all. He took a $12 billion trade surplus and made it into a $100+ billion trade deficit, tripling our national debt with unneeded nuclear arms research and deregulated savings and loans. His military spending increased to match “imaginary” spending in USSR (they were close to national debt and had no money to spend on their military). His deregulation caused an “Oil Bust”, which he countered by raising taxes eleven times on poor and middle class incomes. (Kuznick, 494-495).
The Savings & Loans crisis has been written out of the Reagan legacy, but the fact is that deregulation in effect gave the industry a license to gamble with taxpayers’ money, at best, or simply to loot it, at worst. By the time the government closed the books on the affair, taxpayers had lost $130 billion. (Rowland, 197).
But there was also a longer-term effect. Reagan-era legislative changes essentially ended New Deal restrictions on mortgage lending — restrictions that, in particular, limited the ability of families to buy homes without putting a significant amount of money down.
These restrictions were put in place in the 1930s by political leaders who had just experienced a terrible financial crisis, and were trying to prevent another. But by 1980 the memory of the Depression had faded. “Government”, declared Reagan, “is the problem, not the solution; the magic of the marketplace must be set free.” And so the precautionary rules were scrapped. So while our 2000 era economic depression was made much worse by George W. Bush’s poor financial decisions, Reagan is the one to really thank for deregulating our market. (Rowland, 201-202).
Regardless of facts, Reagan is credited with a rebirth of the American Conservative movement. His speaking ability is widely thought of as exceptional, and he undoubtedly possessed great communication skills. In addition, he consistently ranks highly in public opinion polls, and ranks highly in opinion polls which rank former presidents. Conservatives see him standing strong against a threat that was presented by the USSR, and keeping America safe during the cold war and ending it with swift justice.
But the fact is Reagan’s fiscally conservative policy hurt the United States in the long term, contributed to budget deficit and raised the national debt. In addition, scandals such as the Iran-Contra affair weakened American support abroad, and to say his social policies were “short-sighted” is a major understatement. Reagan was the most poorly informed and least engaged chief executives in US History.
Stone, Oliver , and Peter Kuznick. The Untold History of the United States. New York: Gallery Books, 2012. Print.
Robert C. Rowland, and John M. Jones. Reagan at Westminster: Foreshadowing the End of the Cold War (Texas A&M University Press; 2010)