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


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.