WASHINGTON -- The occasion of President Ronald Reagan's 90th birthday has generated claims large and small about his legacy. They range from enthusiasts' contentions that he achieved a revolution in American politics to critics' grudging acknowledgments that he made Americans feel better about themselves and their country.
Beyond the sympathy expressed over his plight as a victim of Alzheimer's disease, there is a genuine affection toward him that belies the modest approval the polls gave him over his eight years in the White House. In the wake of a staggering federal deficit and a host of unmet social needs, his job approval as measured by Gallup over that period was only 52 percent. Now his Gallup favorable rating is 74 percent.
Mr. Reagan's formula for domestic well-being -- big tax cuts combined with high military spending -- was widely seen as the cause of the deficits, destroying his 1980 campaign contention that the combination could be achieved while balancing the budget. It was this formula that the senior George Bush dubbed "voodoo economics" while running against Mr. Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination that year.
It was a label that Mr. Bush, upon becoming Mr. Reagan's running mate, regretted and even denied using -- until a tape recording verified the utterance.
Twenty years later, no such put-down came from the Bush son as he campaigned essentially on the same formula. Yet early indications indicate the son is not enamored with the old Reagan elixir in at least one respect. While pushing his tax cut aggressively, word comes from the Pentagon that the younger Mr. Bush will not increase the defense budget over the $14 billion former President Bill Clinton had already advanced.
House Republicans are quick to claim that the Reagan revolution is alive and well in the new Bush administration. But the overtures by the new president to Democrats, limited as they may be, on such issues as campaign finance reform and a patient's bill of rights suggest a more conciliatory posture than Mr. Reagan customarily adopted. One thing about Mr. Reagan was that his rhetoric was always consistent, even when pragmatic aides persuaded him to deviate from it in action, as in accepting tax increases.
A more interesting area in the claim to Mr. Reagan's greatness is in the end of the Cold War. It has become an article of faith among Republicans that Mr. Reagan's expensive military buildup, combined with his active exploration of a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or star wars, missile defense system, bankrupted the Soviet Union and precipitated its downfall and dissolution.
There can be little doubt that Mr. Reagan's spending and SDI advocacy did put a major squeeze on the Soviet economy and on the Kremlin's thinking about competing effectively in armaments against the United States. But the Soviet Union, it is now generally accepted, was already an economic basket case that sooner or later was heading for collapse.
The key question about crediting Mr. Reagan with ending the Cold War with his military buildup and star wars talk is whether that buildup and that talk comprised a carefully calculated plan by Mr. Reagan to put the Kremlin in the poorhouse, and thus topple it. Or was it just his strongly held conviction that the Soviet Union was indeed "the evil empire" that genuinely threatened military superiority over the United States, and that the SDI concept could work?
If Mr. Reagan's military spending and his dream of a reliable missile defense were intentional devices to bring down the Soviet Union economically, he proved to be a master strategist. But if the Soviets were falling of their own weight, Mr. Reagan has been given too much credit for the result.
In 1993, I attended a conference on the Reagan presidency at Hofstra University, where the claim was alternately made and challenged that his SDI scheme had effectively ended the Cold War. That to me is the critical question about whether Mr. Reagan qualifies for the mantle of greatness. If bankrupting the "evil empire" with U.S. wealth financing a huge military buildup was his grand design, he probably does.
But Mr. Reagan truly believed that the buildup was essential for American survival, and that a broad star wars system would work. So I doubt that all he had in mind was a mere poker game of raising the stakes until the other guy had to fold his cards.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.