Editors Note: There’s been a lot of talk lately about Bill Clinton’s efforts to “polish his legacy.” Clearly, he’ll be remembered for Monica, but I think we’ll also recall that the 1990s were a time of peace and prosperity — the calm before the storm. Although he doesn’t deserve all of credit for that, someday we’ll probably look back nostalgically at the Clinton Era as the “good old days.” That got me thinking about how we’ll view some of the conservative administrations once we’re a bit more distanced from them. One of my more-extreme right-wing friends refers to President Reagan as “a titan.” I wonder how that will hold up 50 years from now.

The Lessons of History: How We Got Where We Are


Many Democrats and independents consider George W. Bush the worst president of their lifetime. Based on the past six years, they could be right, but, with his administration still a work-in-progress, such judgments may be premature.

Mr. Bush has transformed vast surpluses into record deficits, bequeathing crushing debt to future generations. He’s also cherry-picked bad intelligence to start a war he’s bungled so badly that it now appears endless. And he’s gambling hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars on a “bait-and-switch” in the Gulf that’s exacerbating an already-dangerous situation.

Besides dissipating the international solidarity generated after 9/11, the Iraq fiasco has prevented Mr. Bush from pacifying Afghanistan — his one major foreign-policy success. With a reconstituted Taliban, and Osama bin Laden releasing more recordings than Kelly Clarkson, the president’s pledge to get the men responsible for 9/11 now seems pathetic.

Excluding Libya, Mr. Bush has had little success limiting nuclear proliferation. Calling three nations an “Axis of Evil,” then invading the one without a nuclear program will teach future despots (like those in Iran and North Korea) to seek America’s respect by developing nuclear arsenals of their own.

Always beholden to the oil industry, Mr. Bush’s energy policies ignore alternative fuels, conservation and anything that addresses energy independence or global warming. Always beholden to the anti-scientific Luddites of fundamentalist Christianity, he’s vetoed funding for stem-cell research and tacitly supports teaching creationism in the public schools.

The immigration crisis remains unresolved, and Americans remain hopelessly polarized. Our president may be “the decider,” but he’s no “uniter.”

This is written from a moderate-left perspective, so right-wingers will doubtless disagree with most of it. Conservatives who aren’t diehard Clinton-haters usually consider Jimmie Carter the worst president of their lifetime, but the policies engendered during his admittedly ineffectual administration aren’t threatening America’s future.

Most conservatives believe the greatest president of their lifetime ¾ and some suggest, the entire 20th century ¾ was Ronald Reagan. (These are the people who campaigned to replace Roosevelt’s head on the dime with Reagan’s.) Unlike the Bush regime, the Reagan administration is far enough in the past to permit some perspective.

Republicans talk endlessly about how, “The Gipper got us standing tall again.” But isn’t that really more talk than walk? For example, conservatives belittled Bill Clinton for responding to terrorism by launching a few cruise missiles, but Reagan’s response to terrorism was offering to trade them a few missiles.

Reagan did invade Grenada, an island less than a tenth the size of Rhode Island, and he did send the Marines into Lebanon, where Hezbollah blew up 241 of them. Many of the pundits who castigated Clinton in 1993 for getting troops killed in Somalia give Mr. Reagan a pass for the far-worse massacre in 1983. (At least Reagan took responsibility for his debacle, which is unheard of in the Bush-Cheney era.)

Conservatives revere Reagan for winning the Cold War. However, crediting him with single-handedly shredding the Iron Curtain — because he called the Soviets an “Evil Empire” and outspent them militarily — disrespects the cold-warrior presidents, from Truman to Carter, who stood against Communism for decades. It also disregards the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev: It’s doubtful Russia would be the semi-democracy it is today if Leonid Brezhnev or Yuri Andropov had been in charge.

Ending the Cold War never brought us the anticipated “peace dividend,” as the huge, unfunded military buildup that got us standing tall continues unabated. Cheerleaders for the military-industrial complex warn of China’s alarming military buildup; however, its defense budget isn’t even 15% of ours, and Iran’s is approximately 1%. In 2005, the U.S. spent more on its military than the rest of the world combined, yet with only 140,000 troops pinned down in Iraq, we’re stretched too thin to deal with Iran or North Korea.

“Reaganomics” financed the recovery from the “stagflation” of the Carter years with enormous defense spending and reduced taxes (mainly for the wealthy), creating record deficits. Reagan hypocritically blamed his deficits on “big-spending Congressional Democrats,” although he never once sent Congress anything remotely resembling a balanced budget. He moved us from a tax-and-spend policy to one of borrow and spend, and we’re now the world’s largest debtor nation, with China holding much of our paper.

The Reagan years taught politicians that deficits don’t matter. Fiscal responsibility is now a nonstarter for presidential aspirants, as Walter Mondale learned during the 1984 campaign, when he suggested a tax increase might be needed. When the elder Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge to deal with the tsunami of debt created by his predecessor’s “voodoo economics,” his budgetary accountability helped torpedo his re-election. Comfortable with borrow-and-spend economics, his son doesn’t even pretend to care about fiscal responsibility.

In the interest of accuracy and the historical record, it might be wise to temper the hyperbolic canonization of Ronald Reagan. And years from now, someone may want to temper the hyperbolic demonization of Mr. Bush … but that’s a task too arduous for me.

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