Ronald Reagan, for whom I voted twice, talked a good conservative game of cutting government spending and reducing the bloated federal bureaucracy. But those commitments delivered in his best resonant movie star voice wound up as unfulfilled campaign promises.
Nevertheless, it got him elected California’s governor and U. S. president twice. How? Reagan had the distinct talent of recognizing what people wanted to hear and then piling it on.
Despite Jimmy Carter’s advantage of incumbency, Reagan carried all but four states in the 1980 election and won the popular vote by over eight million. In the campaign he decried the nation’s mismanagement under the Democrats: “For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present.” He promised to “check and reverse the growth of government.” From these words one might think Reagan would have embarked on a program of reduced spending and budget cuts. But he never even began the austerity program he promised.
During the Carter years the federal deficit averaged $54 billion annually. During Reagan’s eight years the deficit quadrupled to $210.6 billion and annual spending almost doubled from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1.14 trillion in 1989. The federal bureaucracy that Reagan had sworn to reduce actually expanded by 5 percent during his two terms.
All his talk about shutting down unneeded government agencies and programs also turned out to be just hot air; more style than substance. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Reagan understood what made Americans tick — assurances and gratification, not hard truth and challenges. He played the American penchant for self-indulgence to the hilt. But one good result came from his saber-rattling.
Reagan’s bold increase in military spending forced the Soviet Union to follow suit, quickly bankrupting their already-failing economy. In quick succession the Soviet government collapsed, the empire fell apart and the Berlin Wall came down.
Reagan did not ask for a tax raise to cover his additional defense spending, the largest peacetime increase ever. But we could have afforded it. Instead he asked Congress to cut spending on social programs to cover it. How naïve! No legislators, Democrat or Republican, would dare cut pork spending, their bread of life, their mother’s milk. As with previous Republican deficits, this one was simply added to the federal debt.
History will hold George W. Bush accountable for the disastrous Iraq War, but the godfather of our meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts was Ronald Reagan. In a gross miscalculation 241 Marines lost their lives in his uncalled-for Lebanon occupation. He then, without comment, withdrew the entire American contingent after more deaths in the 1983 suicide bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. We, untypically, cut and ran. And to this day the real objective of Reagan’s entry into the Muslim Middle East in the first place remains rather obscure.
Republicans talk a good game of conservatism and spending cuts, but historically they have consistently outspent the Democrats. And who is getting the real benefit? The big defense contractors and their lobbyists. Anyone wondering about this should read President Eisenhower’s 1980 farewell address in which he warned of the undue political influence and financial power of the American military-industrial Complex. Call it up and read it. I dare you!