The Reagan Revolution and Its Discontents
His presidency was better than expected, but worse than desired.


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.”


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.