Over the years, "supply side" would evolve into a secular religion for many on the Right, but Reagan's budget director David Stockman once blurted out the truth, that it would lead to red ink "as far as the eye could see."
While conceding that some of Reagan's economic plans did not work out as intended, his defenders--including many mainstream journalists--still argue that Reagan should be hailed as a great President because he "won the Cold War," a short-hand phrase that they like to attach to his historical biography.
However, a strong case can be made that the Cold War was won well before Reagan arrived in the White House. Indeed, in the 1970s, it was a common perception in the U.S. intelligence community that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was winding down, in large part because the Soviet economic model had failed in the technological race with the West.
The CIA analysis was the basis for the détente that was launched by Nixon and Ford, essentially seeking a negotiated solution to the most dangerous remaining aspects of the Cold War.
The Afghan Debacle
Though the Afghan covert operation originated with Cold Warriors in the Carter administration, especially national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the war was dramatically ramped up under Reagan, who traded U.S. acquiescence toward Pakistan's nuclear bomb for its help in shipping sophisticated weapons to the Afghan jihadists (including a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden).
While Reagan's acolytes cite the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan as decisive in "winning the Cold War," the counter-argument is that Moscow was already in disarray--and while failure in Afghanistan may have sped the Soviet Union's final collapse--it also created twin dangers for the future of the world: the rise of al-Qaeda terrorism and the nuclear bomb in the hands of Pakistan's unstable Islamic Republic.
Trade-offs elsewhere in the world also damaged long-term U.S. interests. In Latin America, for instance, Reagan's brutal strategy of arming right-wing militaries to crush peasant, student and labor uprisings left the region with a legacy of anti-Americanism that is now resurfacing in the emergence of populist leftist governments.
In Nicaragua, for instance, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (whom Reagan once denounced as a "dictator in designer glasses") is now back in power. In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN won the latest elections. Indeed, across the region, hostility to Washington is now the rule, creating openings for China, Iran, Cuba and other American rivals.
In the early 1980s, Reagan also credentialed a young generation of neocon intellectuals, who pioneered a concept called "perception management," the shaping of how Americans saw, understood and were frightened by threats from abroad.
To marginalize dissent, Reagan and his subordinates stoked anger toward anyone who challenged the era's feel-good optimism. Skeptics were not just honorable critics, they were un-American defeatists or--in Jeane Kirkpatrick's memorable attack line--they would "blame America first."
Under Reagan, a right-wing infrastructure also took shape, linking media outlets (magazines, newspapers, books, etc.) with well-financed think tanks that churned out endless op-eds and research papers. Plus, there were attack groups that went after mainstream journalists who dared to disclose information that poked holes in Reagan's propaganda themes.