How He Transformed the GOP

Article excerpt

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 hostage crisis.

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 from Reagan.

In more direct ways, the current President Bush is seen as the heir to the Reagan mantle. …

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