Ike and Reagan
Posted on November 12, 2009Ike and Reagan
I was at a dinner party last night, and got into an unintended argument about who was the better President: Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower. I took the improbable position that Ike was a better President than Reagan, and one of the dinner guests, a distinguished judge, took me on, stating unequivocally that Reagan was a far superior President.
While I am too proud to acknowledge that I lost the debate, others in the room would probably say I did. But that doesn’t mean I was wrong. And I still contend that Ike was every bit as great a President as Reagan, and in some respects, even more so.
While every one of our Presidential contenders will continue to campaign as the next Ronald Reagan, I actually think the country needs some of the adult leadership provided by a guy like Ike.
Don’t get me wrong. Reagan had his strong points. He was an eternal optimist. He helped America rebound from the dreadful Carter years. He helped bring down the Soviet Union. He will always be a symbol of conservative leadership.
But Ike had his strong points too. When it came to fighting communism, Eisenhower was no slouch. He helped develop the containment philosophy. Yes, he tried to avoid a nuclear showdown, he chose not to go to war with China, he didn’t do much to help the Hungarians, but he understood that after World War II and Korea, that the American people weren’t ready for World War III.
But Ike wasn’t into witch-hunts. He could barely stomach his Vice President, the Red-Baiter Richard Nixon. And he deftly threw Joe McCarthy under the bus when McCarthy unwisely took on the military in his hunt for Communists.
Reagan, of course, called for an end to containment by calling the Soviet Union what it was, an evil empire. He demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. He built up our military, fought the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, armed the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, and envisioned a Star War missile defense shield that brought the Communists to their knees.
Both Reagan and Ike took on inflation. Ike did it by keeping deficits low. He balanced the budget three times during his tenure as President. Reagan did it through monetary policy with Paul Volker at the Fed.
Reagan had one huge recession, which led to massive unemployment, followed by an unprecedented economic expansion. Ike had three mild recessions followed by steady, if unspectacular, economic recoveries. Average unemployment during the Reagan years was 7.2%. For the Eisenhower years, it was 5.4%
When it came to deficits, Eisenhower was a hawk, Reagan a dove. Ike left a legacy of balanced budgets, and when he left office, his successor, Jack Kennedy inherited a healthy economy that allowed the new President to cut taxes and increase spending with very little concern.
When Reagan left office, his successor, George H.W. Bush was forced to raise taxes and cut spending in a painful summit that ultimately cost him his job. Bush was condemned by Republicans for breaking his tax pledge, but had he not signed that budget agreement, the fiscal viability of the federal government would have been questioned, interest rates would have risen, and inflation would have come back with the vengeance.
Eisenhower’s chief domestic legacy was the Interstate Highway System. It is easy to overlook the singular importance of this achievement, but because of the highway system, America was able to extend its global economic dominance for two generations. Ike learned about the importance of an interstate highway system from Germany’s experience with the autobahn. And he made the pitch for the highway system because of its national security implications. But the real benefit of a highway system, is, of course, economic. It moved goods faster, more efficiently, and at lower cost, thereby giving the U.S. a huge advantage over any other international competitor.
Reagan’s chief domestic legacy was probably either saving Social Security from going broke for a generation or the 1986 tax reform bill. Some conservatives like to believe that Reagan successfully dismantled FDR’s New Deal, but of course, that is pure fantasy. While the 1986 tax reform bill did simplify tax rates, it is hard to make the case that the tax code is much simpler today than it was three decades ago. In fact, you can make the case that it is more complex today than it has ever been.
On the courts, Ike comes under criticism for appointing Earl Warren and Willam Brennan. Both of those picks were disastrous from a conservative jurisprudence perspective. The Warren Court made up rights for criminals that were nowhere to be found in the Constitution, and a fictional “right to privacy”, that helped lead to the terrible Roe V. Wade decision. Reagan’s picks were better, especially Antonin Scalia, but neither Sandra Day O’Connor nor Anthony Kennedy were going to vote with William Rehnquist to overturn Roe V. Wade or reverse much of what the Warren Court did. So, the edge goes to Reagan on the question of the courts.
Some will say that Reagan was so great because he restored America’s position in the world after the disastrous Presidency of Jimmy Carter. There is, of course, much truth in that. But the 1950’s were every bit as turbulent as the 1980’s. The world was every bit as dangerous (and maybe more so) in the aftermath of the Second World War as it was during Carter years. And just because we fondly remember the 1950’s through the prism of Fonzie and the television show “Happy Days”, there were two social revolutions that bubbled underneath the surface. Women were used to working during the war years, and blacks were getting awfully tired of discriminated against in the Jim Crow South. Change was coming, and while Ike wasn’t exactly a civil rights leader, he did his best to promote change. In fact, many in the black community saw him as an ally in the struggle for civil rights. Indeed 34% of black America voted for him for reelection in 1956. Reagan only got 9% of the African-American vote in 1984.
These were not quiet years. But Ike was a quiet leader who helped America recover and, yes, prosper.
Reagan was a great communicator and he gave great speeches, and in his own right, was a great President. Eisenhower was not much of speech maker. In fact, on occasion, he would purposefully confuse the media about his real intentions. But being President is so much more than making a good speech (as we are learning the hard way from the current White House occupant).
In the pantheon of our greatest Presidents, Ike was every bit as great a President as Reagan, in my estimation (and the estimation of most historians). We could use his kind of adult leadership today.