The Reagan Revolution and Its Discontents
His presidency was better than expected, but worse than desired.
Some years ago I had occasion to hear Sir Martin Gilbert, then in the midst of producing the official biography of Winston Churchill, discuss how he became interested in writing history. His answer was simple — curiosity. As a small boy, he wondered why bombs were falling from the sky on London, why he was being packed aboard a ship and sent off to relatives in Canada, why his uncle in the army came back from captivity in Asia some years later weighing less than 100 pounds. “ I wondered what this meant,” he said, “how it could happen, and what caused it. . . . [T]he absence of explanations for what seemed important things made a vivid impression on me, and I wanted to try to figure out, if I could, why many things were as they were.”
A similar, though far less dramatic, set of circumstances explains why I have spent the better part of a decade doing something rather egregious according to current publishing conventions — writing a long, old-fashioned, two-volume narrative history of Ronald Reagan and his effect on American political life (The Age of Reagan) — even though the events it discusses would seem to have been thoroughly covered and well understood by this point.
When I was in the first grade, in the fall of 1964, I knew two things with certainty. First, my mother and father were crazy for Barry Goldwater — the only candidate for whom they ever affixed a bumper sticker on their cars. Second, I knew that Goldwater would win, because all my schoolmates said their moms and dads were for Goldwater, too. Needless to say, I was bewildered when, the morning after, I heard the news that Goldwater had not only lost, but lost badly. The beginning of my political education began with the realization that there must be a wider and different world beyond my suburban community.
Anyone my age or older has their own recollection of those turbulent years. I was curious about why my father, a combat veteran of World War II and Korea, would shake his head over the headlines in the evening newspaper about the latest events in Vietnam (we still had evening papers in those days). I puzzled over why my anti-Communist parents would nonetheless describe our John Birch Society neighbors as “kooks.” Amid all the confusions and shocks of the time, it became axiomatic around our family dinner table that the new governor of California, the former TV and film star, should and probably would some day become president.
So I set out in the late 1990s to write copiously about Ronald Reagan. I did this in the first instance to understand better the times in which I had lived, but secondly and more importantly, because I was sure, even as late as ten years ago, that Reagan would end up not eulogized but “Coolidgized” — in other words, like that other once-popular president of the past (Calvin Coolidge), Reagan was likely to fare poorly at the hands of the media-academic complex.
But along the way, over the last decade, a surprising and unexpected thing happened: Reagan’s reputation started to soar, and even liberals started to like him — but not all of him, to be sure, and therein lies the need for a broad-gauge narrative history of the man and his times.
Liberal writers and scholars who once scorned Reagan, such as John Patrick Diggins, Richard Reeves, Sean Wilentz, Douglas Brinkley, and, most recently, James Mann, have produced unexpectedly positive assessments of Reagan and his presidency — an upward revision that rivals the belated esteem that Dwight Eisenhower received at the hands of historians, starting a decade or so after he left office. This admiration is limited and qualified, however; once the accounts move beyond the Cold War and some of the previously unknown aspects of Reagan’s personal writing, such as his copious letters and diary, the accounts of Reagan are sorely lacking. One is tempted to paraphrase Reagan’s famous movie line: “Where’s the rest of him?”
Apart from the Cold War, the usual narrative is that most of Reagan’s presidency ranged from fiasco (such as his economic policy) to disaster (the Iran-Contra scandal), just as many historians incorrectly judge Winston Churchill’s pre–World War II career as largely a failure or a disaster. This disjunction between Reagan’s Cold War statecraft and his domestic statecraft is a major interpretive mistake. Above all, too many treatments of Reagan try to abstract him from his ideology, which is, to borrow G. K. Chesterton’s phrase, like “trying to tell the story of a saint without God.”
Conservatives, meanwhile, commit a symmetrical mistake. Although Reagan was and remains the hero of conservatives and Republicans, over the last decade many conservatives have forgotten the aspects of the Reagan presidency that disappointed or frustrated them to various degrees. As a result, they are not taking seriously some fundamental challenges of conservative governance that the Reagan experience poses. Much of the admiring conservative literature about Reagan, like that written by liberals, also focuses chiefly and too narrowly on the Cold War story.
The epilogue of the second and concluding volume of The Age of Reagan is entitled “The Reagan Revolution and Its Discontents.” I wrote it to draw attention to the lacunae in the conservative Reagan literature and commentary. The election of Barack Obama gives it a whole new salience, as leading liberals tell us that the present moment represents the repudiation or obsolescence of Reagan and Reaganism. Robert Reich, for example, says that Obama’s economic policy “drives a nail in the coffin of Reaganomics. We can basically say goodbye to the philosophy espoused by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.” Democratic strategist Robert Shrum says that “Obama is not only unwinding Reagan’s policies, he is offering a Rooseveltian paradigm that justifies government pragmatically.”
Above all, I want to draw attention to some of the constitutional dimensions — constitutional in the broad, Aristotelian sense of the term — that should be drawn from the Reagan years.
ALL ABOUT FREEDOM
What was the Reagan revolution anyway? How revolutionary was it? And what should those who wish to emulate Reagan today learn and apply from Reagan’s story? To answer these questions it is necessary, first, to understand the unity of Reagan’s statecraft, and second, to appreciate the way Reagan perceived his statecraft in constitutional terms.
Understanding the unity of Reagan’s domestic and foreign statecraft is not easy, partly because the domestic side is much more complicated; it lacks the personal drama of the Cold War against the Evil Empire. Reagan never stood in front of the Federal Trade Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency and said, “Mr. Regulator — tear down this rule!” But he figuratively had this attitude. One revealing diary entry from 1986 reads: “The villain in the case is the Fed. Drug Administration [he meant the Food and Drug Administration], and they are a villain.”
Reagan’s statecraft, at home and abroad, should be seen as a unity for one crucial reason: He saw it as a unity. Lincoln once wrote that all nations have a central idea from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The same can be said of leading statesmen. Reagan’s central idea can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, both in its vicious forms, such as Communism or socialism, and in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.
That Reagan regarded statism as a continuum, rather than a dichotomous problem of the East and West, was made clear in his 1982 speech in Westminster, where he said: “There is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state. History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches — political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom.” Reagan’s conflation of “secret police” and “mindless bureaucracy” was no mere coincidence, as his next sentence made clear: “Now, I’m aware that among us here and throughout Europe there is legitimate disagreement over the extent to which the public sector should play a role in a nation’s economy and life” — in other words, “I know you’re not all as freedom-loving as me and Margaret Thatcher” — “but on one point all of us are united: our abhorrence of dictatorship in all its forms.”
The point is: The same principles that animated Reagan’s Cold War statecraft also directed his domestic-policy vision. Now, this isn’t especially remarkable to recall, and in fact the critics who nowadays want to consign Reaganism to the dustbin of history like to recall with scorn the part of his First Inaugural Address where he declared: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. . . . It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.”
However, I think both friend and critic have lost sight of the important way in which Reagan viewed his project as a restoration of constitutional government as the Founders intended it. In other words, Reagan conceived of his project not as a revolution but as a restoration.
This is made clear in the immediate sequel in his Inaugural Address. Reagan continued: “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed” (emphasis added). Note here that Reagan didn’t rest his argument against the growth of government on grounds of efficiency or effectiveness, but on the constitutional ground of consent. This had been a constant theme of Reagan’s political rhetoric for more than 20 years, but one that was rarely heard from America’s political class — even from other conservatives. He was careful, though, to qualify his critique of government:
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. . . . Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.
While this is not revolutionary, it is controversial, as it challenges the basic premises of the modern, centralized administrative state. Liberals in 1981 could scarcely have imagined hearing such heresy from the presidential podium. Although many liberals had been shaken by the disasters of the preceding 15 years, from Vietnam and the Great Society through President Carter’s ineffectual rule, there was never a point at which the fundamental premises of modern liberalism were attacked from the pinnacle of American power. The moment seemed very far removed from the days when a liberal intellectual such as Robert Maynard Hutchins could declare: “The notion that the sole concern of a free society is the limitation of governmental authority and that that government is best which governs least is certainly archaic. Our object today should not be to weaken government in competition with other centers of power, but rather to strengthen it as the agency charged with the responsibility for the common good.”
BACK TO THE FOUNDERS
Reagan was the first president since FDR who spoke frequently and substantively about the Founders and the Constitution. This is a remarkable and telling fact. Woodrow Wilson also spoke often on these subjects, but quite differently than FDR did. While Wilson was openly critical of the founding because of its emphasis on limited government, FDR’s invocations of it were mischievous — he appeared to be defending or proposing a restoration of the principles of the founding while in fact attempting a wholesale modification of our constitutional order. After FDR, our presidents practically ceased making reference to the founding or the Constitution — until Reagan arrived.
It is also significant that Reagan rejected the reformist assertion that the presidency, or our democracy in general, was inadequate to the times.
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?
Reagan had so fully internalized the thought of so many of his political forebears, such as Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, that it is not clear whether he knew he was paraphrasing them. Where he got his principles, though, is no mystery. In his First Inaugural Address, in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” Unlike Hutchins and other liberals, Reagan didn’t think Jefferson’s philosophy was “archaic.”
Did Reagan succeed in curbing the size and reach of the federal government? The answer appears to be no, at least if total federal spending or the size of the federal bureaucracy is used as the main metric. Although Reagan had some success in keeping the growth of government spending below what it would have been under a second term of Jimmy Carter (indeed, far below what Carter’s last five-year budget plan had projected), over the long run the Reagan years appear to have been a small speed bump on the road to serfdom. Between 1981 and 2006 (the last year for which I ran the numbers for my book), inflation-adjusted federal spending grew by 84 percent, while the population grew by only 30 percent. If per capita spending had grown only at the rate of inflation, federal outlays in 2006 would have been $800 billion lower than they actually were — under, remember, a Republican president and a Republican Congress.
On the other hand, in 1981 federal spending accounted for 22.2 percent of GDP; in 2006 it was 20.3 percent. So the growth in the economy over the last generation has allowed federal spending to soar way beyond the rate of population growth while falling slightly as a portion of GDP. William Voegeli commented on this in The Claremont Review of Books:
This measure hovered in a very narrow band for the whole era, never exceeding 23.5% or falling below 18.4%. Adding expenditures by states and localities confirms the picture of a rugby match between liberals and conservatives that is one interminable scrum in the middle of the field. Spending by all levels of government in America amounted to 31.6% of GDP in 1981, and 31.8% in 2006.
The difficulties Reagan had controlling spending and the growth of government were not lost on conservatives during and immediately after his presidency. The case for disappointment, verging at times on betrayal, was made often while Reagan was in office. For example, the Winter 1984 issue of Policy Review contained a symposium called “What Conservatives Think of Reagan.” Now recall that in early 1984 the Democrats were engaged in a spirited nomination battle to see who could best reestablish old-school liberalism and overthrow the Reagan usurpation. As late as December 1983 some polls found Reagan trailing the putative strongest Democratic challenger, Sen. John Glenn, and it was far from clear that the economic expansion that had shown signs of robustness in 1983 would continue.
In the midst of this uncertain political situation, conservatives such as Sen. William Armstrong (R., Colo.) said: “What’s the sense of having a Republican administration and a Republican Senate if the best we can do is a $200 billion deficit?” Terry Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, complained: “There has been no spending cut. There has been no turnover of control to the states. There has been no effort to dismantle the Washington bureaucratic elitist establishment. . . . The question when Reagan got elected was whether he was going to be closer to Eisenhower as a caretaker or to Roosevelt as a revolutionary. He’s been generally closer to Eisenhower, preserving the status quo established by previous liberal administrations.” On and on the conservative commentariat fulminated. Conservative journalist M. Stanton Evans: “This has been essentially another Ford administration. It has been business as usual, not much different from any other Republican administration in our lifetime.” Paul Weyrich: “The radical surgery that was required in Washington was not performed.”
In the early years after Reagan left office, the refrain of disappointment continued. Midge Decter wrote in Commentary in 1991: “There was no Reagan Revolution, not even a skeleton of one to hang in George Bush’s closet.” “In the end,” concurred William Niskanen, chairman of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, “there was no Reagan Revolution.” The late Thomas B. Silver argued: “Judged by the highest goal he set for himself, [Reagan] was not successful. That goal was nothing less than a realignment of the American political order, in which the primacy of the New Deal was to be challenged and overthrown. It cannot be said that Reagan in any fundamental way dismantled or even scaled back the administrative state created by FDR.”
THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE
Two observations should be made regarding this kind of disappointment. First, much of the conservative discontent derived from the categorical imperatives of ideological fervency, which are the lifeblood of party politics and political activism but often distract from perceiving real changes and achievements. Liberals talked much the same way about FDR and the New Deal back in the 1930s; many liberals thought the New Deal fell far short of what it should accomplish. The New Republic lamented in 1940 “the slackening of pace in the New Deal” and fretted that “the New Deal has been disappointing in its second phase.” John Dewey and Minnesota governor Floyd Olson, among others, complained that the New Deal hadn’t gone far enough to abolish the profit motive as the fundamental organizing principle of the economy, and Norman Thomas scorned FDR’s “pale pink pills.” Historian Walter Millis wrote in 1938 that the New Deal “has been reduced to a movement with no program, with no effective political organization, with no vast popular party strength behind it, and with no candidate.” There’s just no pleasing some people.
This leads to my second observation, which concerns a central aspect of party politics that was poorly perceived or actively misrepresented, especially by the media in the 1980s, and is still not adequately recognized by historians. Here again a comparison of Reagan and FDR is helpful. Both men had to battle not only with the other party, but also with their own. Both men by degrees successfully transformed their own parties, while at the same time frustrating and deflecting the course of the rival party for a time. This, I suggest, is the heart of the real and enduring Reagan Revolution (or Age of Reagan).
Liberal ideologues who despaired over the limits of the New Deal overlooked that FDR had to carry along a large number of Democrats who opposed the New Deal. Reagan’s experience was similar, as he had to carry along a number of Republicans who were opposed to or lukewarm about his conservative philosophy. This problem would dog Reagan for his entire presidency. Robert Novak observed in late 1987: “True believers in Reagan’s efforts to radically transform how America is governed were outnumbered by orthodox Republicans who would have been more at home serving Jerry Ford.”
Keep in mind that if it had been within the power of the GOP establishment in 1980, the presidential nomination would surely have gone to Gerald Ford, George Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, or John Connally. By 1980 many Republicans in Washington were victims of the political equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize with their captors. Having been in the minority for so long, many Washington Republicans had absorbed the premises of establishment liberalism, offering what amounted to a slightly lower-budget version of the Democratic platform.
Reagan’s dramatic landslide election in 1980 posed two problems: Democrats had to figure out how to oppose Reagan; Republicans, how to contain him. Today we speak of the three liberal Republican senators (one of them now a Democrat) who backed Obama’s stimulus package. In 1981, there were as many as 15 such senators in the Senate Republican caucus (which had gained twelve seats and taken control of the Senate in the 1980 election). Old establishment bulls like Charles Percy, Charles Mathias, John Warner, Robert Packwood, Slade Gorton, Larry Pressler, Lowell Weicker, Robert Stafford, John Chaffee, and Mark Hatfield were distinctly unenthusiastic about Reagan and laid repeated roadblocks in his path. On a bad day, this number included Bob Dole, Howard Baker, and Pete Domenici as well. Hatfield, the new chairman of the Appropriations Committee, didn’t care much for Reagan’s proposals to cut social spending, eliminate cabinet departments, or privatize the Bonneville Power Administration (“over my dead body,” Hatfield roared). Packwood, his fellow Oregonian, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, openly attacked Reagan as an obstacle to a Republican realignment.
Much of the time, these liberal GOP senators acted as though they were in opposition. They shared little or none of Reagan’s ideological or partisan spirit, giving proof to Eugene McCarthy’s quip that the principal function of liberal Republicans “is to shoot the wounded after the battle is over.” Reagan noted this problem from time to time and privately expressed a high degree of contempt for Hill Republicans. While I have not tallied up the references in Reagan’s published diaries, reading through them, one gets the impression that Reagan complained as much about timid Republicans on Capitol Hill as he did about Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, if not more. In a 1984 diary entry, complaining about Hatfield’s opposition to an administration position on the budget, Reagan ruefully comments: “With some of our friends we don’t need enemies.” In another diary entry, Reagan referred to Sen. Lowell Weicker as “a pompous, no good fathead.” More than once, after a disappointing show of support from congressional Republicans, Reagan wrote in his diary, “we had rabbits when we needed tigers.”
The lesson of FDR and Reagan is that changing one’s own party can be more difficult than beating the opposition. FDR grew impatient as fellow Democrats blocked his legislative agenda during his second term, and thus he attempted to purge the Democratic party of anti–New Dealers in the 1938 election cycle. This gambit failed worse than his court-packing scheme and resulted in a rout at the polls, as Democrats lost 71 House seats and five Senate seats.
Reagan, whether by temperament or conviction or both, rejected any notion of leading a Republican purge. To the contrary, Reagan replicated his two-front struggle against liberalism and establishment Republicanism within his own senior staff at the White House, resulting in the well-advertised split between the so-called “ideologues” and “pragmatists.” Movement conservatives bristled at seeing the GOP establishment so well represented in Reagan’s inner circle, and to be sure, the “pragmatists” were more adroit at infighting and using press leaks in attempts to alter Reagan’s course.
At the same time, movement conservatives and the media alike did not perceive how well this arrangement served Reagan, or indeed how it matched his California experience, in which Reagan had blended moderates from the campaign of his vanquished primary foe, George Christopher, with movement conservatives. Reagan tried to explain it in this exchange from a 1981 press conference:
Question: Can I ask you one more question? There have been specific reports that your secretary of state and secretary of defense are not getting along and that they argue in front of you. Can you comment on those reports?
President Reagan: The whole Cabinet argues in front of me. That was the system that I wanted installed.
Though the partisans of the distinct camps in the Reagan White House would be loath to admit it, their feuding probably contributed to better policy-making. An attempted Reaganite purge, of either the party or his own staff, might well have backfired and snuffed out the spontaneous slow-motion revolution within the party that was already under way, and that gained new momentum in the 1990s under the spur of figures such as Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was frequently included among conservatives who expressed frustration with Reagan. “Ronald Reagan is the only coherent revolutionary in an administration of accommodationist advisers,” Gingrich complained in 1984. “The problem was that Reagan’s people were so excited by victory, they forgot they didn’t control the country. They didn’t control the House and they didn’t really control the Senate. They didn’t in fact have real power, but psychologically they acted as if they did.”
In light of the obstacles in Reagan’s path, it is remarkable that he was able to accomplish as much as he did, notwithstanding his failure to work a full reversal of the administrative state. The arrival of Obama has changed the scene, with an ambitious push to break out of the historic range of the size of government, perhaps once and for all, amid the current economic crisis. Here one of Reagan’s nearly forgotten initiatives comes to mind. In 1987, when his political fortunes were at low ebb on account of the Iran-Contra disaster, Reagan launched an initiative for what he called the Economic Bill of Rights. In a neat reversal of FDR’s famous call for a statist-oriented economic bill of rights late in his presidency, Reagan proposed a package of constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget, a two-thirds majority vote of Congress for any tax increases, a federal spending limit of some kind, and a line-item veto for the president.
To be sure, there was no chance that Congress (including a newly Democratic Senate) would enact these ideas in 1987, or probably at any time in Reagan’s presidency. They may or may not be good ideas to write into our fundamental charter. Still, it is an easy thought experiment to imagine how such measures would constrain Obama’s ambition if they were in place in some form today.
One other aspect of Reagan’s constitutionalism had more importance than it seemed at the time, and that was the very public fight that Attorney General Edwin Meese provoked over original intent. This was one high-profile argument that Reagan delegated, but a number of his radio commentaries in the 1970s had opposed judicial activism and championed constitutional originalism, so we know he was solidly behind Meese. There is a lot to be said on both sides of this controversy, which is not clear-cut, but suffice it to say that in picking this fight, the Reagan administration revived a constitutional debate that liberals thought was over and done with.
So the picture is decidedly mixed. Reagan transformed the Republicans into a party much more in his own image, just as FDR did with the Democrats in the New Deal. He successfully curbed some of the excesses of liberalism, though he did not turn back liberalism itself. The inexorable logic of modern American government is to expand by degrees; this is the intended legacy of the Progressive and New Deal transformations, which were constitutional in purpose and effect.
Why didn’t Reagan succeed more in reducing the size and influence of the federal government in domestic affairs? Reagan was more successful in rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire chiefly because this is a harder problem. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana has commented sagely: “The Reagan years will be for conservatives what the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience — a conservative Camelot. At the same time, no lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration.”
Reagan’s second solicitor general, Charles Fried, wrote: “The Reagan administration tried to make a revolution. It proposed dismantling large parts of the welfare-bureaucratic state which had grown up over the previous half-century. Revolutionary as it was, it required (in Danton’s phrase) boldness, more boldness, ever more boldness. This boldness was not always in evidence, and often when it was it met ignominious defeat at the hands of Congress, the news media, and timorous Republicans.”
Reagan’s would-be successors should recall Machiavelli’s counsel that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” If there is ever to be a sequel to the Reagan Revolution, his successors will need to keep the counsel of boldness in mind; they will also need to remember Reagan’s constitutional outlook and adapt it to new times, rather than just looking back at his sunny disposition and “faith in America,” which is what all too often passes for “Reaganism” today.
If I seem to emphasize the negative aspects of the Reagan years, it is only because I grow tired and impatient with the most common form of Reagan nostalgia today, which is more reminiscent of his “morning in America” campaign of 1984 than of his much sharper and purposeful campaign of 1980. Reagan deserves better than that. He remains the beau ideal of a modern conservative statesman, whose skills and insights are worthy of the closest study and emulation. But as William F. Buckley Jr. reminded the Philadelphia Society during Reagan’s presidency, the most powerful man in the world is not powerful enough to do everything that needs to be done. Gary McDowell, one of Ed Meese’s Justice Department aides who worked on the original-intent portfolio, offers a suitable summary, with which I will close: “Domestically Ronald Reagan did far less than he had hoped, he did far less than he had promised, less than people wanted — and a hell of a lot more than people thought he would.”
— Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counter-Revolution, 1980–1989