That rhetoric eventually had real consequences, says Chester Pach, a historian at Ohio University who is working on a biography of Reagan. "Who is it that said the era of big government is over? Who signed welfare reform?" Pach answers his own rhetorical questions: "A Democrat [Bill Clinton]. And I don't think that would have happened without Reagan's changes in our ways of thinking about government."
But didn't huge deficits and mounting national debt stifle the entrepreneurial energies that Reagan wanted to set loose? This is one of the more contested points in debates over Reagan's legacies. Reagan himself tempered his own most ambitious 1981 tax cuts with subsequent fiscal tinkering. Friedman maintains that it took three steps--tax increases and spending cuts pushed through by George Bush in 1990 and by Bill Clinton in 1993 and in 1995--to reduce the Reagan-era deficits, which he charges "caused a decline in investment in plant and equipment." But that view minimizes the offsetting effect of foreign capital that came into the United States and fueled a surge in private investment beginning in the Reagan years. It also gives little credit to the energies unleashed by Reagan's continuation and expansion of the deregulation launched by President Jimmy Carter. And it ignores the impact, for better or worse, of what Princeton labor economist Alan Krueger calls "a watershed event": the firing of 13,000 striking air-traffic controllers. After the president showed that he would defy a union, Krueger says, strikes "plummeted and never recovered."
Perhaps most astonishing is how little attention has been given to possibly the greatest economic turnabout of the Reagan era: the subduing of double-digit inflation. Economics columnist Robert Samuelson attributes the relative silence on that point to the fact that it had little to do with Reagan's trademark (though largely unfulfilled) pledges to cut government and restrain government spending. The Federal Reserve's tight-money policies under Chairman Paul Volcker deserve most credit for taming inflation. But, as Samuelson notes, amid widespread criticism of the Fed, Reagan remained a firm supporter of Volcker's unpopular policy. And that constancy paid off.
In the end, though, as many have said, Reagonomics was more complex than supply-side economics. It had more to do with the general spirit of optimism he encouraged than with any particular policy he pushed. For one thing, he reminded Americans that what went on in Washington should not be thought of as the major force in the nation's economic life. And it was not just in the realm of economics that he injected new attitudes and ways of thinking, or maybe restored older ones. "Reagan," says Pach, "gave voice and legitimacy and recognition to a lot of constituencies that had concerns about sexual promiscuity and declining moral values. He helped change our perception of the use of drugs and what to do about it. By embracing such causes, Reagan gave them a centrality--and he helped change the national debate."
How transformative a president was he? According to Edward Berkowitz, a historian at George Washington University, Reagan ranks high. "Next to Roosevelt, he really is the key president of the 20th century," Berkowitz says. "Roosevelt helped set up this New Deal-activist mode of government. Reagan created a post-New Deal government, which we in fact have today." Columbia historian Alan Brinkley modifies that judgment in a way that probably brings it closer to the current consensus. He believes that what Reagan did to change the political landscape--"how people thought about politics, how parties were organized, how the electorate behaved" --puts him in a category with FDR. "But in terms of actually changing what government does," says Brinkley, "I don't think he was nearly as influential."
That might be the greatest semi-backhanded compliment anyone could pay to Reagan. The Great Communicator himself wanted to be remembered above all for restoring Amercans' confidence in themselves and their exceptionalist destiny. Changing the nitty-gritty practices of government is the work of detail foxes. Reagan, the hedgehog, led and inspired a movement--a new conservatism that, over time, has fostered a humbler, more constrained vision of what government can and should do. If what Reagan achieved in America was not a revolution as dramatic and sudden as the one he helped bring about in the old Soviet empire, it was a new direction whose possibilities and limits still lie before us.