By Grover G. Norquist
Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1976 and 1980 challenging the establishment's views on domestic economic policy and foreign policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Empire.
Reagan first defeated and then largely absorbed the Republican establishment on both domestic and foreign policy. Howard Baker, once a contender for the 1980 Republican nomination did vote for the Reagan income tax rate reductions, while calling them a "riverboat gamble." George Bush called supply side economics "voodoo economics" but then in 1988 signed a pledge to protect the lower rates. Bob Dole voted for the lower tax rates while bitterly criticizing supply side economics only to endorse marginal tax rate reduction when he ran for president in 1996.
On foreign policy Reagan's "peace through strength" has become the party's mantra and "détente" is now viewed as another of Richard Nixon's character flaws. Reaganism, the party's history explains, defeated and dismantled the Soviet Empire after fifty years of bipartisan dangerous failure.
The center-right finds Reagan's successes easy to explain. Low taxes and less regulation create jobs and growth. A strong military, recognition of the evil and threat of Communism and support for anti-communist rebels in Afghanistan, Angola and the resistance in Poland aided by the failure of socialism as an economic system led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. What is not to understand and applaud?
The establishment left has had a more difficult time explaining how Reagan succeeded in his two stated goals-turning the economy around from Carter's stagflation -- both high unemployment and inflation-and destroying the Soviet Union -- with such wrongheaded policies.
The establishment left has also had to back away from its favorite caricature of Reagan the "amiable dunce" who was "sleepwalking through history" and who had read fewer books than Illinois Democrat Senator Paul Simon had written. The final stake was thrust into the heart of this narrative with the publication of Martin and Annelise Anderson and Kiron K. Skinner's book in 2004, A Life in Letters that published hundreds of radio editorials written in his own hand, self-edited and clearly showing a first rate and well read mind. Reagan the product of clever speechwriters, the actor reading the ideas and words of others was gone.
The bitter enders of the revisionist Left wisely skipped over the economic history of the 1980s and 1990s (deciding to avoid embarrassing conversations about GDP, employment, inflation, growth rates) and on foreign policy credited Michael Gorbachev with agreeably ending the cold war and dismantling the Soviet Union on purpose. Reagan was just standing there when the nice Soviet Leader fixed the world.
James Mann's new book The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan is a cross between the Andersons' revelation of Reagan's unexpected and hitherto hidden, wisdom and the theory that Gorbachev reformed the Soviet Union out of existence absent external pressures-certainly not due to any right-wing, military build up, red baiting pressures from the cowboy Reagan.
Reagan's wisdom, per Mann, is found in recognizing Gorbachev's historic role and not getting in the way. A rather backhanded insult to the man's life work.
Mann divides his book into four parts that can be enjoyed or at least visited separately: first, a comparison of Nixon and Reagan's views of communism and the Soviet Union; second, the little focused upon role of Suzanne Massie as an informal conduit between Reagan and the Soviet Leadership in the mid-1980s; third, the story of the June 1987 "tear down this wall" speech, and fourth, the "easing of the Cold War Tensions during Reagan's final two years in office."
It is all interesting reading and appears accurate and well sourced. But it is a little like reading a history of Napolean's life after the retreat from Moscow. It skips over some of the good bits.
The Soviet Union didn't fall. It was pushed. Gorbachev didn't end the Cold War any more than Mussolini ended the Second World War. He was a casualty and one fatally wounded in retreat.
When Reagan was elected in 1980 the Soviet Empire had ended a decade that included the American retreat from Vietnam, the communist take over of Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, Cuban troops in Grenada and the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. America had increasing unemployment and, despite all the best theories, an inflation rate above ten percent.
Driven by Ronald Reagan, the United States military doubled its procurement by 1985. Intermediate range missiles were placed in Europe to counter the SS-20s. Anti-tank weapons neutralized the Soviet Armor advantage in Europe. The Soviet Union's plans for two pipelines into Europe that would make Western Europe dependent on Soviet oil and gas and a joint project with Japan were stopped by an American boycott. The First strand of the European pipeline delayed and the second stopped until after the Soviet Union ended. Europe was bullied into fuller participation in a technology embargo against the Soviet Union Western loans were discouraged to the Eastern Bloc.
The Afghan resistance was given Stinger missiles and brought down several hundred soviet planes, helicopter and pilots. Stinger missiles also went to the Angolan resistance, UNITA.
And Reagan's economic policies brought GDP from $3.2 trillion in 1982 when the tax cuts took effect to $6 trillion in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. Employment in America rose from 89.7 million to 108.4 million in those years. Books have been written on how the deregulation of airlines, buses, trains and trucking dramatically increased American productivity and economic growth in that period. Share ownership in the United States rose from 20 percent of American adults to more than 50 percent today.
Reagan made a series of decisions and won political fights against the modern Democrat party to change both our military and foreign policy and our economic policy that strengthened the Untied States and weakened the Soviet Union.
Both Reagan and Bush staffers this author spoke with agreed that Reagan and Bush did things to prop up Gorbachev because by 1987 the Soviet Union was on a road to collapse and Gorbachev was viewed as more likely to let things proceed to further weakness and possible dissolution with less blood on the floor. Gorbachev was eventually toppled in a coup by those in the Soviet Union who, had they acted earlier, might have been able to maintain the Empire through violence directed at their own people.
Mann correctly points out that Reagan and Bush handled the Gorbachev relationship in a way that maximized American strength and led to a non-violent Soviet Collapse. But that was the end, not the beginning of the strategy.
Grover G. Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform.
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