This primary season seems set to repeat the longstanding tradition among Republican presidential candidates of invoking the name ‘Ronald Reagan’ to bolster their image.
The Republican president, who served between 1981 and 1989, remains a crucial touchstone and unifying figure for a party that is increasingly riven with division and dissent.
However, Reagan’s legacy is more complex than one might immediately imagine.
Reagan and Confidence
For many the Reagan era symbolised a return of confidence after the economic turmoil of the 1970s and renewed international dangers.
His 1984 re-election campaign ad declared ‘morning in America’, an optimistic vision for taking the country forward. He even dealt with a botched assassination attempt in 1981 with humour and grace.
The Reagan confidence was no where more evident that in foreign policy. After a brief period of détente with the Soviets in the 1970s, Reagan’s hawkishness in the early part of his first term has largely defined how he was perceived and remembered.
Reagan declared the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’, ramped up defence spending, and scared the Soviets with the secretive military program ‘Star Wars’.
For many conservatives in America the demise of the Soviet Union and the public pugnacity of Reagan are directly connected. History has uncovered the more complex and important internal problems in Moscow, both in economic and political terms, but in public memory Reagan has developed a triumphant reputation for his role in the late 1980s.
Reagan’s confidence surrounded and imbued his public image. Conservatives look back to his years in office as a time of prosperity and self-assurance, and new Republican candidates jockey to position themselves as the natural heirs of Reagan.
The aura of Ronald Reagan is intimately tied to his legacy as an economic reformer who helped America recover from the crises of the 1970s.
Reagan focused his economic strategy on lowering taxes and encouraging consumers to spend more, hoping to kick start the US economy from the stagflation of the 1970s. This supply-side economic policy did encourage growth, though there is no consensus on the overall role of Reaganomics on the recovery.
Inflation was cut and the U.S. economy grew throughout the 1980s, reaching 6.8% in 1984, but the recovery was uneven. Middle class families felt far less of the economic boom, and the poverty rate slightly increased.
On the left side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders is calling for a broad change to the American economic system, breaking down the power of Wall Street banks and increasing taxes on high earners. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has thus far pursued a very moderate course in economic policy.
The question is to what extent the Republican field will substantively take lessons from the economic strategies of Ronald Reagan while happily citing his name in debates and speeches.
Reagan’s Botched Middle East Strategy
Despite the fact that Reagan is considered a strong leader by much of the Republican base, it is important to remember his shortcomings in foreign policy, specifically with regard to the Middle East.
Throughout both of Reagan’s terms he struggled to define a clear strategy for the region. Though the Iranian hostage crisis was a particularly difficult hangover from his predecessor, Reagan’s failures cannot be solely explained by antagonism with Tehran.
With Lebanon and Syria, Reagan’s foreign policy was seriously flawed, becoming embroiled in a network of violence with few clear objectives and clumsy posturing. Tragically, this led to 241 US servicemen being killed in a single suicide attack in Beirut during October of 1983.
The situation in Lebanon and Syria was little improved, despite the losses suffered by the US marines.
At a time when the divisions and conflicts in the Middle East are so inflamed, it is important for our leaders to acknowledge and understand the implications of acting in the region. Today U.S. policy is forced through a prism of power politics, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel continue to influence decisions made in Washington D.C.
The next President must have far clearer objectives and a far more nuanced understanding of the Middle East if America can help improve conditions in the war torn parts of Iraq and Syria.
Reagan and Dishonesty
Reagan is fondly remembered by many as a friendly face of government, telling rambling stories during press conferences and joking during political debates.
However, Reagan’s administration also oversaw contentious government cover-ups.
The Iran-Contra Affair of the early 1980s involved the US government selling arms to Iran, in order to facilitate the release of American hostages, and the subsequent channelling of the profits from these exchanges to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The arrangement not only violated the public policy against appeasing Iran, but also the Boland Amendments passed by Congress that prohibited further financing of the Contras.
Reagan’s involvement in Iran-Contra remains under debate, though scholars tend to believe that he was at the least aware of the covert exchange.
Of course, Ronald Reagan is not the only President to be tainted with such hushed-up controversy: George W. Bush was responsible for the widespread civil data sweeping revealed by Edward Snowden, and Barack Obama’s legacy may be tainted by eight years of undeclared drone warfare.
Though the face of conservative optimism for some, Reagan’s presidency involved its fair share of duplicity.