The Leadership of Ronald Reagan

Edwin Meese III

December 1, 1999

I’ve been asked to talk today about the leadership of Ronald Reagan. I think it is appropriate to talk about Ronald Reagan and his leadership for a number of reasons. It has been ten years now since he left the presidency. That period of time has given us a perspective in which to look back and to evaluate perhaps more clearly than the media was able to do at that time, the significance of the Reagan Presidency. Another reason is that the accomplishments and policy decisions of the Reagan era still are important in terms of what the world is like today. There are also many lessons to be learned which are as applicable today as they were when he was sewing the seeds of those lessons more than a decade ago.

The 1980s were a period in which there were significant changes in both the direction and the conditions of national and world affairs.

Most of you here will remember the late 1970s as a time of crisis: economic crisis, national security crisis, and a crisis in terms of the United States position in the world.

Within the country, we were experiencing the worst economic chaos since the Great Depression. Our interest rates were as high as 21%, so real estate was not moving at all. We had inflation of 12.5%. We had unemployment at 7.5% in 1980, which would rise to nearly 10%. We had oil shortages, and I’m sure all of you who were driving at that time remember getting up at four or five o’clock in the morning to get your car in line at the gas station because by nine o’clock they would be all sold out. And as a result of all of these things—the oil shortages as well as the economic condition—we had a stagnant economy—something the economists said could never happen—high inflation at the same time as a stagnant economy.

In terms of our national security, our situation was equally grave. The armed forces had deteriorated during the 1970s to a dangerous point where there were real questions about the ability of our military services to defend our national interests and to defend the country. We had, as they said at the time, planes that couldn’t fly because of a lack of spare parts. We had ships that couldn’t sail because of the lack of trained crews. The all voluntary military, which had come to be in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, was suffering from low morale, discipline problems, and a serious drug abuse epidemic. As a result of all of these things, we were neither a credible deterrent to our adversaries nor a reliable ally to our friends.

Here at home the condition of our people was equally serious. The president at that time said the public was gripped by a malaise. Our position of world leadership was threatened, and many of the pundits at the time said that democracy had peaked and was on the downhill slide, and that capitalism was no longer dominant as a world force. They looked at what was going on in South America, in Africa, and in Asia, and said that we would have to live in the future in a continuous détente with the Soviet Union, and that Socialism was the wave of the future.

These were the conditions that Ronald Reagan inherited when he became president on the 20th of January in 1981. He had campaigned on two major goals. The first was to revitalize the economy, and the second, to rebuild our military capability and restore our position in world leadership. And that is what he set out to do.

To restore the economic vitality, he had a four-point program. The first part was to reduce tax rates across the board. When he took office, marginal tax rates were as high as 70%, and there was little incentive for people to risk their money, let alone apply their energies, when the government was taking seven dollars out of every ten dollars they might earn by that activity. As a result of the Reagan program, we had a 25% reduction in tax rates across the board over three years.

The second part of President Reagan’s plan was regulatory reform: to cut back on the oppressive regulations imposed by the federal government. There was a tangible reflection of what happened during that period of time. The Federal Register, as most of you know, is that document published weekly by the federal government that lists all of the new regulations and changes in regulations. When Ronald Reagan took office, the Federal Register amounted to 87,000 pages every year. By 1985, he had cut that back to something like 47,000 pages, almost cutting it in half, as an example of regulatory reform.

Another objective was to slow the growth of federal spending. Although this was the toughest of the objectives and the one in which the president was least successful, at least he was able to slow the growth of the federal bureaucracy and the federal government more so than any president had been successful in doing in the later half of the twentieth century, up to that time.

And finally, his fourth point, which he worked with Chairman Vokker and later Alan Greenspan to achieve, was a stable monetary policy, which led to the prices continuing to be relatively low and away from the high inflation of the 1970s.

The result of all of this was the longest period of peacetime economic growth in history. And indeed the start of a period of economic growth which, with the exception of a nine-month recession during the early ‘90s, has continued to this day. That was the situation in regard to the economy.

In terms of national security, the first thing the president did was to rebuild our defenses. This particularly involved increasing the technological ability of our armed forces, both strategically and in terms of our conventional weapons.

The President inaugurated in 1983 a whole new way of looking at ballistic missiles and nuclear war: to develop a strategic defense initiative. He repudiated the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” which provided that if the Soviets launch a missile at us, before those missiles would land we would launch our missiles, and thus we would blow each other up. Ronald Reagan did not think it was very good to have the stability and peace of the world teetering on the edge of something that was like, as he said, two cowboys in the old wild west, each of which had a cocked pistol at the head of the other. He thought there was too great a chance for accidents, mischance or miscalculation. And so the strategic defense initiative was a very important part of this total approach of our military capabilities.

The other thing he did in terms of geopolitical affairs was to have a strategy of dealing with the Soviet Union that was more comprehensive and more specific than previous policies. First of all he engaged the Soviets on the basis of morality. He had the courage to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” and this had a tremendous impact on the Soviets and led to their respect for him and the negotiations that followed later on with Gorbachev.

The second thing was his commitment to restrain Soviet aggression. During his presidency, there was not one square kilometer of ground gained by the Soviets any place in the world, in contrast to what had happened in the previous decade.

Finally, perhaps one of the most important parts of the strategy was to roll back the previous aggression of the Soviet Union by supporting the freedom fighters in Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Poland and Angola.

The result, as we know, was the end of the Cold War with the west winning. The Soviet Union and the imperialistic policies, which had characterized it, ended. At the end of the 1980s more nations in the world were free than in any other time in history.

I would like to mention other important aspects of the Reagan legacy. The first was the restoration of the founders’ concept of Constitutional government. One example has to do with the role and balance between the various state governments around the country and the national government.

In the Depression, a great deal of power had accumulated in the federal government because of the difficult economic times and the feeling that only the national government was able to provide the assistance necessary to stave off tremendous economic problems. Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned on returning power, once the emergency was over, to the state and local governments. Because of the national emergency and the mobilization of World War II, which immediately followed, the power that had accrued to the federal government stayed in place and was institutionalized so it was very hard at the end of the war to root it out.

Then we have the federal power grabs of the 1960s, with the so-called Great Society, and the early 1970s, when the Nixon administration, instead of turning them around, decided they could manage them better. We had the continuation of more and more power being exercised by the federal government.

Ronald Reagan sought to reverse that power flow and to return to the states their rightful place in our national republic. There were several initiatives, including the beginning of welfare reform, which was finally completed two years ago. There was a requirement of all of the departments and agencies of government that any time they initiated a new program or instituted a new regulation they had to first evaluate the impact on the power of local and state government. They had to ask whether the new step would interfere with the Constitutional balance between what the federal government ought to be doing and those powers that ought to be retained by the states.

Another important aspect of the Reagan presidency was his faith in the good conscience and the good motives of the people themselves. He challenged people as individuals, and as citizens working in community groups, to take more responsibility for their own lives so there would be less for the government to have to do. President Reagan felt that government handouts didn’t
really solve the problem. They may only eleviate it for a short period of time. He felt that getting people to work through faith based organizations, community groups, and neighborhood entities would help people. This way there was a human touch which would help solve problems in the long run and get people out of their position of dependency and back into a position of constructive citizenship.

In looking back to the 1980s and the Reagan presidency, not everything went right. Some of the objectives were not completed. Some things were left to be done. But during this period, and under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, I would suggest to you that several things did occur that continue with us to this day, and there are lessons we should be learning from them. President Reagan built the foundation for our continued economic growth, stressed the importance of our military strength, began the restoration of the Constitutional balance of power between the central national government and the states, and helped the American people regain their confidence and entrepreneurial spirit.

The question that we have to face today, in looking back upon the lessons learned and the conditions that we are fortunate to have as a result of the leadership of Ronald Reagan is: will we go forward and continue the beneficial policies and the accomplishments that I believe are part of the Reagan legacy? Or will we go backwards to the failed policies of the past, which include such things as a big and growing national
government, a massive welfare state, oppressive regulations, high taxation, and military weakness? We have, as I have mentioned, some ominous examples today. Our military has declined considerably in the last few years. We have this potential rise in drug abuse. Our position of leadership in the world today is in some jeopardy as we don’t seem to have clear-cut objectives and goals and even less clear-cut strategies to achieve them.

So it is important, I believe, that we look back at the legacy and the leadership of Ronald Reagan and use them to provide lessons not only for our national government, particularly for the Congressional leadership today, but also for the citizens of this country, as they consider their choices in the forthcoming election. I believe that, as we move forward toward the next century, a careful look at the Reagan legacy and President Reagan’s leadership can
provide the guidelines for a future in which we have peace, freedom, and the flourishing of the human spirit, which will be a benefit not only to the United States but the whole world.

Edwin Meese III is the Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow in Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He was the United States Attorney General under President Reagan.