Though Ronald Reagan served as president for eight years, 1981 to
1989, his impact on the nation's politics extends to this day.
To many Americans, he gave political conservatism an attractive
face, converting an entire wing of the Democratic Party to
Republicanism, which in turn has left the country with a sharply and
evenly split electorate. In economics, he left an ideology that
preached lower taxes, smaller government, and less regulation, but a
reality that also meant skyrocketing deficits.
For some Americans, the Reagan years were a time of tremendous
prosperity, of government "getting out of the way" and allowing
market forces to flourish. For the less fortunate, the Reagan era
was a time of hard knocks.
Most historians see Reagan's global legacy as a hastening of the
end of the cold war: an expensive arms race with the Soviet Union
that ran America's adversary into the ground, leading to the breakup
of the Soviet behemoth and the entire communist bloc, leaving the
United States the sole global superpower.
"The irony is he spoke of government as a problem, not a
solution, but what he did was restore a kind of faith in
government," says historian Robert Dallek.
Reagan's ascent to the corridors of national power, after his
years as a Hollywood actor and governor of California, got its start
in the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, a conservative
Republican who lost badly in the election of 1964. That failed
campaign, to which Reagan lent his rhetorical skill and genial
personality, allowed him key moments in the national spotlight with
a conservatism that the nation wasn't ready for at the time. By
1980, however, America was, after Vietnam, Watergate, the failed
Ford presidency, and the Carter years of "malaise" and Iranian
It was probably Reagan's entire persona that sold conservatism, a
term that didn't need to be embellished with "compassionate" until
the second George Bush sought the presidency. To this day, says
Professor Dallek, Reagan "has a continuing hold on the public's
imagination.... Reagan was able to rekindle hope in the country and
reestablish a positive spirit."
By the time Reagan left office, he was the first American
president in nearly 30 years to have completed two terms. And with
Democrat Bill Clinton, the next two-term president, there were
echoes of Reagan's style and even doctrine. If Reagan was the Great
Communicator, then Clinton was his heir. When Clinton uttered the
line, "The era of big government is over," he was borrowing directly
In more direct ways, the current President Bush is seen as the
heir to the Reagan mantle. …