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Legacy of 40th president both a gift and a burden
WASHINGTON -- Ronald Reagan told Americans that government was the problem. They haven't been quite the same since.
Lionized by his party, mimicked by opponents when not mocked by them, he spoke the verities of a new age of conservatism that remains the strongest thread in American politics.
A gift and a burden came from the Reagan years.
The gift: the landmark arms control agreements that brought the world steps back from nuclear Armageddon, combined with a toughness his admirers say was the final thrust of Cold War victory. After his time, the Berlin Wall came down.
The burden: the cost of that toughness and more. Reagan powered up the military while attacking the anti-poverty programs he said did not work. His shining city was built on a mountain of debt.
Welfare reform, entitlement reform, tax cuts, a balanced budget, a crime crackdown featuring support for the death penalty, a rallying against family breakdown -- both parties wanted to do those things after Reagan took a crack at them.
Could all that have happened without Reagan first?
Historians are supposed to hedge until the dust long settles, said Tim Blessing of Alvernia College, longtime organizer of scholarly rankings of presidents. "But," he ventured years after Reagan's presidency, "no."
"Reagan lent legitimacy to what 10 years earlier would have been considered wild-eyed radicalism," Blessing said.
A familiar pattern
These days, Peter J. Wallison, former White House counsel to Reagan, sees a familiar pattern in President Bush's leadership.
Bush's devotion to tax cuts in a time of high deficits or recession, his willingness to take foreign policy stands at odds with allies and many Americans, and his uncompromising talk of an "axis of evil" all seem inspired by the Reagan playbook.
"It is hard to escape the thought that George W. Bush learned some important things about being president from observing Ronald Reagan," Wallison said.
Reagan remained in form long enough after his presidency to appreciate, in typical good cheer, the "theft of ideas that you and I recognize as our own."
Yet for the conservatives who regard his vision as the essential truth, the devil has been in the details -- rising homelessness during years of growth, programs Americans do not want touched (and Reagan did not) when push comes to shove, and exploding deficits left for successors to tame.
Still, Andy Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization in the 1980s and now head of the Pew Research Center, has little doubt Reagan edged Americans to the right in a way that endured.
Gradually the public's appetite for government scaled back, he said. "He arrived at a time as president when the public opinion was ripe for that political leadership."
Reagan remained such a point of reference after his presidency that Bill Clinton's 1992 Democratic campaign polled people on Reagan's popularity, by way of figuring out how to beat the first President Bush.
But Democrats do not invoke Reagan with the reverence that Republicans have expressed for Franklin Roosevelt or that people of all stripes reserve for truly bridging figures down the centuries.
Some of the things Republicans most cherish about him, like the Strategic Defense Initiative or Reaganomics or calling the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire," are things his opponents most ridiculed. Consensus exists only on his ability to connect with people.
"He was mocked at the time," ideological soul mate Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, said on Reagan's 84th birthday in 1995, "and he didn't give a damn because he knew he was right."
What his legacy will be for the ages is a question for a future era. Blessing says it can take 40 years of context and probing through papers for a president to be given his right place in the pantheon.
Dwight Eisenhower moved up the scale as the years passed. FDR consistently towered. As for Reagan, a tendency not to take him seriously persists.
He did not win a really big actual war, build huge dams or carve out a country. When historians talk about a president who whipped Americans into a gung-ho spirit, they talk about Teddy Roosevelt or his cousin, FDR.
Instead, analyst William Schneider wrote in a first-blush look by various authors at "The Reagan Legacy," "He did what all successful political innovators do -- he created new facts."
Reagan started changing things in a hurry, with a 1980 platform that put the GOP on a course it still follows. Out went decades of Republican support for the Equal Rights Amendment for women, an initiative now long dead.
In came unyielding language against abortion, much toughened from its introduction four years earlier. Leaping beyond the mere tax simplification calls of old, the platform went for dramatic tax cuts across the board.
And this was a compromise document worked out with moderates.