Assessing the Reagan years. Scholars already start weighing how historic the changes will be

The Reagan presidency: What will be its legacy? Few observers dispute its short-term success, as attested by the President's high approval ratings and immense popularity. But as scholars begin to evaluate the Reagan era in terms of its potential impact on the future and its enduring lessons, they portray a presidency of paradoxes and mixed results.

In a new and much-noticed Urban Institute study to be published in September, academic analysts draw these broad conclusions:

Economist Isabel V. Sawhill: The Reagan period will be remembered as a ``turning point'' in a long, historical swing from liberal to conservative policies. But, in leaving behind huge budget and trade deficits, it has created a new economic threat that is likely to reduce Americans' standard of living.

Harvard government professor Hugh Heclo: Reaganism, with its ``feel good'' thrust, has made a changing world seem more bearable to Americans. But, rather than a period when government's role lessened, the 1980s will be seen as a time of consolidation of a predominantly status quo, middle-class welfare state and of postponement of national problems.

Princeton scholar Richard P. Nathan: Mr. Reagan has restored faith in the executive office and revitalized the concept of federalism. But, while he has changed federal-spending priorities, his cuts have been offset by increases in state and local spending.

Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer: Reagan's espousal of traditional values and focus on such social concerns as abortion and school prayer have broadened the base of the Republican Party. But he has tended to protect traditional practices where they exist rather than try to extend them to society as a whole.

Urban Institute political analyst John L. Palmer: Reagan has provided ``popular leadership,'' but he has missed an opportunity for genuine ``political leadership'' that forges a political consensus to deal with persisting social and economic problems.

Jack A. Meyer, economist at the research organization, New Directions for Policy: The President administered a needed jolt to the welfare system but, by refusing to end government subsidies for the middle- and upper-income classes, he has not brought social expenditures under control or devised a new approach to the problems of poverty.

Most of the authors of the study, entitled ``Perspectives on the Reagan Years,'' are political moderates, tending toward the center of the ideological spectrum. The Urban Institute is a respected research organization supported by government and private funding.

On balance, the scholars give Reagan credit for responding to the national need for self-reassurance after years of trial at home and abroad and helping restore public confidence in the presidency. But as they look to the future, some profound concerns emerge.

Two authors suggest there has been an overemphasis on individualism, to the detriment of the civic good. Professor Heclo acknowledges that Reaganism ``speaks the language of social obligation.'' But, he says:

``The economic, as opposed to the social, side of Reagan's individualism can easily be portrayed as playing to the most easily rationalized forms of selfishness -- looking out for oneself is the best way of helping the country. There can arise a determined insensitivity that passes for tough-mindedness.''

With respect to America's place in the world, he adds, Reaganism fails to call for any domestic sacrifice or for collective goals. Professor Heclo writes:

``On the contrary, Reaganism brings only the easy message of individual self-advancement with few hard choices. But if Reaganism does not ask much more of the American people than to enrich themselves and struggle to cut their own taxes, are they really prepared to play the kind of tough-minded, bold role in the world that Reaganism envisaged?''

The theme is echoed by Mr. Palmer, who worked in the Nixon and the Carter administrations. He points to a ``serious conflict of values'' in the nation. The mainstream Protestant religion that once served as the political center of gravity and helped bridge the historic tension between economic liberty and the social good, he writes, has declined and given way to an increasingly pluralistic society. But, he says, neither liberals nor conservatives have brought coherence to the public dialogue about values.

Reagan has served the country well by making values a part of the political discourse, writes Palmer. But ``by harking back to a no-longer-prevailing commonality of religious outlook, he has not helped us develop a vocabulary that might transform ideological differences into political consensus.''

The President has usefully reminded the nation of the limits of public responsibility, says Palmer, but ``without clarifying the obligation of individuals to anything but themselves.'' Last, he adds, ``he has restored some sense of our national purpose, but by grounding that purpose in individual economic interests, he has done little to further . . . our sense of social unity.''

Dr. Sawhill, pointing to a vacuum in economic policy, writes that the postwar consensus on Keynesian economics has disappeared but has not been supplanted by supply-side economics, which she says is discredited because of the huge deficits.

Neither liberals nor conservatives, she says, have solutions to the two main problems: how to reconcile price stability with full employment and growth, and how to maintain the US position in the face of increased global competition.

Government may not be able to solve this dilemma, she concludes, but the Reagan policies have worsened things. According to Sawhill, few periods of mismanagement in the past ``can rival the current government's tolerance of budget deficits that virtually guarantee poorer productivity performance in the future and a further erosion of America's relative standard of living.''

Professor Nathan of Princeton, who served in the Nixon administration, says the President's main contribution has been to resuscitate the office of the presidency by skillful legislative action, by selecting cabinet and subcabinet officials in tune with his goals, and by a vigorous judicial strategy.

Second, writes Professor Nathan, Reagan has been successful in shifting power away from the federal government to the states. Three measures -- the reductions in domestic spending, the changes made in federal programs designed to turn authority over to the states, and the massive tax cuts of 1981 -- add up to a ``federal reform strategy.''

But the irony, this scholar says, is that the Reagan policies have stimulated spending at the state and local levels, in effect partially canceling out the President's ``stamp'' on domestic policy. Government, in other words, has not shrunk.

The balancing tendency between these ``retrenchment and devolutionary goals shows how hard it is to make changes in the American political system,'' he concludes.

In the realm of social action, writes neoconservative Nathan Glazer, priorities other than social issues have absorbed Reagan's energies: i.e., defense, the budget, and international crises.

Glazer says the President has moved slowly on quotas in public employment; he has not won a school prayer amendment or tuition-tax credits. Even when the administration has tackled social issues it has often failed. For instance, it lost the battle over the Voting Rights Act and efforts to restore tax exemption to Bob Jones University.

For the most part, says Glazer, Reagan's social agenda is limited to ``exhortation'' despite changes in popular attitudes. Rather than restoring a traditional order of society, he says, the administration seems to be pursuing a program of protecting ``enclaves of traditional values'' and of responding politically to the representatives of those enclaves.

But, the scholar writes, the fundamentalist elements will continue to participate in the Republican coalition, giving the party ``a kind of strength it has not had for sixty years.''

``Under President Reagan,'' says Glazer, ``Republicans can now make an appeal to lower-status evangelicals and fundamentalists who were once solidly in the Democratic camp. This harbors a major long-range shift in the fortunes of the party of the right, and of liberal social policy.''

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