Sean Wilentz: The end of the age of Reagan





[Sean Wilentz is the author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which will appear in May.]

... What some experts envisaged, only three years ago, as a permanent Republican majority now looks like an illusion. The Democrats, despite their internecine battles over the presidency, remain in a potentially strong position and ought to win substantial majorities in both the House and Senate. Having claimed his party's nomination, John McCain must persuade many on the right that his campaign will not, as the radio polemicist Rush Limbaugh has predicted, "destroy" the Republican Party. As his remedial actions demonstrate, McCain cannot count simply on reassembling, yet again, the old Reagan coalition. "It's gone," Ed Rollins, Reagan's White House political director, has said. "It doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore."

If Rollins is correct, we have reached the end of an extraordinary era in American history. After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, the conventional wisdom held that a liberal consensus thoroughly controlled American politics. That consensus began to unravel in the late '60s, but it was by no means obvious that the right wing of the Republican Party would replace it. Even after Reagan won the presidency, many commentators regarded him as a fluke. David Broder of The Washington Post wrote off Reaganism early in 1983 as a "one-year phenomenon" and declared that the Reagan administration had reached its "phase-out."

Yet, by 2008, the surge of conservative politics that Reagan personified had survived brief interruption and temporary reversal and, like it or not, defined an entire political era--an era longer than that of either Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson, longer than the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, and as long as the period of liberal reform that stretched from the rise of the New Deal to the demise of the Great Society.

Any periodization of history is, of course, arbitrary and debatable. And, to be sure, the age of Reagan--the most sustained conservative political era in American history--does not, at a glance, seem as significant as other major periods. Reagan fell far short of eradicating either Franklin Roosevelt's revolution in government or the reforms of the 1960s. Contrary to the heroic portrait painted by his admirers (and, more recently, by some liberals with second thoughts), his presidency either caused or indulged enormous damage, ranging from the savings and loan catastrophe to the Iran-Contra affair. His success owed as much to continued confusion and division among Democrats as it did to his own strength.

Still, like Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan took over a political order in crisis, powerfully pronounced the principles of a new order, and, on some crucial issues, bent the nation to his will. He took ideas that had once been relegated to the ideological margins and carried them into the very core of American politics. By hastening the end of the cold war and altering some of the basic instruments of liberal reform (above all the federal courts and progressive taxation), the Reagan era changed the sum and substance of government at home and abroad. Given the era's longevity, the question is when and why it ran out of steam.

All history is shaped by the unexpected--yet, to an unusual degree, contingency has altered American politics since 1960. If not for the assassination in Dallas, a liberal age of Kennedy might have dawned. Without Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson could well have emerged as the overshadowing figure of the '60s. Had the crimes of Watergate been left unexposed, the '70s and after might belong to the age of Nixon. Instead, out of crises that upended both parties, Ronald Reagan and the right came to power.

The Democrats never fully recovered from their divisions over Vietnam. Likewise, the Republican establishment never fully recovered from Watergate, another unexpected consequence of Vietnam. Overwhelming Democratic victories in the midterm elections of 1974, followed by Jimmy Carter's election two years later, seemed to inaugurate a rebirth of the liberal consensus. But it was a mirage. Carter's blend of high-minded morality and Southern Progressivism alienated him from the party's left wing, which in turn hampered his efforts to rescue a failing economy. Finally, Carter's inability to master world events-- particularly the breakdown of cold war realpolitik in Iran, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan--doomed his administration.

Reagan and the Republican right did not, to be sure, win the presidency by default. Adding newly organized evangelical Christians to his coalition consolidated the Solid South. A plethora of right-wing think tanks rejuvenated or founded in the '70s gave Reaganism an aura of innovation. By placing on his ticket, in 1980, the man whom he had defeated in the primaries, George H.W. Bush, Reagan astutely completed a merger of the Republican right with the old battered establishment.

Reagan did not then proceed quickly to unite the American people behind him. At different points--when he survived his shooting by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, when the economy recovered from the so-called Reagan recession in 1983, and after he embraced Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987--Reagan's public standing soared. But Reagan's average performance ratings in office rank only in the middle tier among modern presidents, on par with Bill Clinton's and below John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Reagan was also a divider, not a uniter. Based on the polling data, the gap between how Republicans and Democrats viewed him dwarfs that of his successor, the unheroic one-termer George H.W. Bush.

Reagan did have a knack, though, for peaking when it counted: during his reelection year in 1984 and in his final year in office. He also proved a shrewd operator regarding the two issues he cared about most--taxes and the cold war. His two major tax cuts, in 1981 and 1986, redistributed wealth upward to the already wealthy and sent deficits soaring. He ultimately secured his chief objective, which was to skew the progressive tax system. It is almost impossible to imagine the top marginal rate on personal income ever climbing back up to 70 percent (the figure when Reagan was elected). That change alone has dramatically curtailed the possibilities for liberal government....


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R.R. Hamilton - 4/29/2008

... there is no way to place Reagan outside of the top 10 American presidents, and arguably in the top 5. Related, there is no way to place Carter outside the bottom 10 presidents, and arguably the bottom 5.