Ronald Reagan's Presidency

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Compare President Reagan and President Nixon’s terms in office.

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Both Reagan and Nixon prided themselves on being conservatives. But in actual fact, Nixon's domestic agenda proved remarkably less conservative than Reagan's. For instance, Nixon signed into a law a large expansion of Medicare, something that was strongly opposed by many on the right of the Republican Party, who believed...

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Both Reagan and Nixon prided themselves on being conservatives. But in actual fact, Nixon's domestic agenda proved remarkably less conservative than Reagan's. For instance, Nixon signed into a law a large expansion of Medicare, something that was strongly opposed by many on the right of the Republican Party, who believed that it represented an unwelcome extension of the federal government's powers. He also proposed healthcare reform, which nevertheless died in committee through lack of Congressional support.

Nixon also signed into law—albeit reluctantly—the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which targeted higher earners. Reagan, on the other hand, embarked upon a substantial program of tax cuts, which disproportionately benefitted the wealthiest Americans. Despite his reputation as an arch-conservative, Nixon was more of a pragmatist than Reagan, who tended to be more committed to radical measures designed to turn back the tide of five decades of liberalism.

The two presidents were much closer in terms of foreign policy. Both sought detente with the Communist world, seeing it as the best way of reducing the kind of tensions that had brought the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nixon's main foreign policy breakthrough was his restoration of diplomatic relations with Communist China. Reagan successfully negotiated dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons with General Secretary Gorbachev of the Soviet Union.

While simultaneously speaking of peace, however, both presidents remained ideologically committed to winning the Cold War. They sought to do this through extensive funding and political support for right-wing governments and insurgents hostile to the spread of radical or left-wing movements. Under Nixon, the CIA engineered the overthrow of a democratically elected socialist government in Chile and its replacement with a military dictatorship. During the Reagan Administration, significant resources were devoted to helping right-wing guerrilla organizations, such as the Contras in Nicaragua, overthrow left-wing regimes.

In the approach of both administrations, we can see a prime illustration of Theodore Roosevelt's famous maxim that, in relation to foreign policy, one should speak softly but carry a big stick. In other words, although both Nixon and Reagan made genuine efforts to try and reduce Cold War tensions, they were no less committed to the destruction of Communist ideology, wherever it reared its head.

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Nixon and Reagan were both elected after the terms of left-leaning Democratic Presidents (Lyndon Johnson in Nixon's case and Jimmy Carter in Reagan's case), and their successful bids for office can be seen in part as a reaction against government intervention in the economy and in social issues. However, Reagan remained a popular President, while Nixon, who became increasingly paranoid, resigned in disgrace over the Watergate scandal in August of 1974.

Nixon and Reagan both attempted to defeat Communism through military engagement and diplomacy. Nixon, while stating that he was rolling back American engagement in Vietnam, was actually involved in covert bombing operations in Cambodia and elsewhere. At the same time, he became the first American President to visit Communist China when he journeyed there in 1972. Similarly, Reagan engaged in military operations against Communist forces and in covert actions, such as secretly funding the Contras to fight against the Communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua by illegally selling arms to Iran. The so-called Reagan Doctrine involved the CIA's involvement in anti-communist movements around the globe. While Reagan was taken to task for the Iran-Contra affair in Congress and in the press, he remained a popular President and served out his second term, while Nixon's illegal activities in the Watergate burglary and cover-up caused him to resign before the end of his second term.

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Both Reagan and Nixon pursued a domestic policy that, at least rhetorically, deemphasized the role of the federal government. Nixon's "Southern Strategy" was part of a larger process of devolution that aimed at rolling back many of the reforms of the Great Society, which he and his supporters saw as wrong-headed and wasteful. Reagan, on the other hand, took office claiming that government spending was out of control, and threatened the nation's future. He thus scaled back many social welfare programs, though he, like Nixon, emphasized the importance of military spending in the context of the Cold War. Both men also reached out to foreign leaders while emphasizing American military preparedness. Nixon held summits with Leonid Brezhnev and became the first United States president to visit China. Reagan held talks with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in an effort to thaw Cold War tensions. At the same time, however, Reagan also emphasized a vigorous policy of rolling back Communist gains around the world, and specifically refuted the policy of detente articulated by Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Finally, both men's presidencies underwent major scandals. Nixon's involvement in Watergate led to his resignation, while the final years of Reagan's presidency were marred by Iran-Contra scandal, in which members of the administration illegally brokered arms deals with Iran while funneling the proceeds to anti-Marxist rebels, known as "Contras" in Nicaragua. A major difference between the two presidencies was Reagan's ability to communicate with the American people. He was composed and genial in front of the camera, and Nixon famously was not, a shortcoming that, even before news of Watergate broke, kept him from forming the same sort of bond with many of the American people that Reagan had.

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