Shortly after Ronald Reagan’s landslide election to the presidency in 1980, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company produced a study of the effect of the presidency on life expectancy, finding that being president shortens a person’s life expectancy nearly as much as cigarette smoking. On average, being president reduced life expectancy by 3.9 years (or 5.2 years among 20th century presidents). Reagan, Met Life projected, could expect to live another 11 years, to 1992.
Typical of Reagan to become the longest-lived ex-president in American history; his entire political career consisted of transcending the expectations of the legions of people who underestimated him. Reagan’s critics and opponents never did figure this out. “People who come up against him think he’s a dumb movie actor,” a Reagan aide told Newsweek in 1970, “and they wind up in pieces.” In 1980 House Speaker Tip O’Neill welcomed Reagan to Washington with a condescending remark that “You’re in the big leagues now.” Reagan quickly taught O’Neill new lessons in hardball.
The Met Life mortality study was merely a more subtle and indirect way of expressing the conventional wisdom of the time–that Ronald Reagan wasn’t up to the job. “Reagan’s election,” John P. Roche, a former head of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, wrote in National Review in 1984, “was thus an 8-plus earthquake on the political Richter scale, and it sent a number of eminent statesmen–Republican and Democratic–into shock.”
The intellectual elites were in a state of shock not merely because they held Reagan, former movie actor, in such low esteem, but even more so because the elites had given up on the presidency itself. The popular historian Barbara Tuchman expressed the thinking of the intellectual elite: “The job of President is too difficult for any single person because of the complexity of the problems and the size of government. Maybe some form of plural executive is needed, such as they have in Switzerland.” U.S. News and World Report wondered: “Perhaps the burdens have become so great that, over time, no President will be judged adequate in the eyes of most voters.” Everett Carll Ladd wrote in Fortune magazine that “The experience of recent years strongly suggests that personal ability and character, while vitally important, are insufficient to assure success to a contemporary presidency. For the institutional setting quite simply has become adverse. A kind of ‘vicious circle’ of declining performance has been initiated.”
The big question for Ladd, and many others, was: “Can anybody do it?” Ladd thought the answer was No, and worried about the implications: “The consequences of yet one more failure in this unique office would impose appalling stress on the whole political system.” Like Tuchman, Ladd thought the office was no longer equal to the times. “The institutional resources available to the President, relative to what he is expected to do, remain seriously deficient.” In other words, we need a more powerful central government.
Perhaps the highest measure of Reagan’s achievement is that after eight years of his presidency, the Iran-Contra disaster notwithstanding, all talk of the presidency as an inadequate institution had vanished into the mists, and has not returned. Reagan achieved this with astonishing swiftness. As early as 1985, a National Journal poll of presidential scholars found that a large majority thought Reagan had succeeded in “reviving trust and confidence in an institution that in the post-Vietnam era had been perceived as being unworkable.”
The British writer Basil Williams wrote a century ago that “the chief work of a great statesman rests in the gradual change of direction given to the policy of his people, still more in a change of the spirit within them.” Reagan’s intent to effect a permanent reversal of New Deal and Great Society liberalism met with only mixed success, but while many noxious liberal policies still persist today, he did succeed in upending the near-monopoly of liberalism in American politics. The welfare state is still growing, alas, but as the presidency of George W. Bush is proving, Reagan’s legacy of tax cuts and missile defense are now part of the bloodstream of the body politic.
The broader change Reagan wrought can be captured by two famous presidential utterances made 32 years apart. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson stood up on the hood of a car during a campaign stop in Providence, Rhode Island, and said, “And I just want to tell you this: we’re in favor of a lot of things, and we’re against mighty few.” That’s about as good a single-sentence definition of big government liberalism as you can come up with. Thirty-two years later, shortly after Republicans had made the unthinkable achievement of capturing both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Bill Clinton stood before the nation and said, “The era of big government is over.” It does not matter from a historical point of view that Clinton was lying again. Of course Clinton and his party remain committed to big government. That he felt compelled by political circumstance to articulate skepticism of big government is testimony to the lasting effect of Reagan, whose public style of executive leadership Clinton self-consciously followed.
If Reagan didn’t succeed at all his large objects, he nonetheless emerges as a more successful political leader than many other great leaders we can name. It is a melancholy reflection on the limits of politics that the legacy of so many political leaders otherwise regarded as successful is shrouded with lingering notes of failure. Lincoln left behind the difficult question of reconciliation and reconstruction at the Civil War; Woodrow Wilson left office amidst the failure of the League of Nations treaty; Franklin Roosevelt died, and Churchill left office, with World War II won but with the seeds of the Cold War clearly germinating; and Truman left office amidst the debacle of the Korean War. Reagan looked to follow in their example, leaving office with the Cold War still going and with astronomical budget deficits as far as the eye could see–a seemingly long-term legacy of failure. Yet in a breathtakingly short time by political standards, the Cold War ended in Western victory, and, until the extraordinary events of September 11, 2001, the nation’s biggest fiscal problem was what to do with its soaring budget surpluses.
Midge Decter put it this way in a 1991 article about Reagan: “There was no Reagan Revolution, not even a skeleton of one to hang in George Bush’s closet. But what he did leave behind was something in the long run probably more important–a series of noisy open debates about nothing less than the meaning of decency, the limits of government, the salience of race, the nature of criminal behavior.” Reagan invigorated the conservative movement in a way that a thousand intellectual journals could never do. He made conservatism into a potent political force.
Reagan began his political career as an insurgent in the Republican party, and ran for president as an outsider. Today, the battle cry of the Republican party is “We’re all Reaganites now.” Numerous political scientists refer to the earthquake election of 1994 as “Reagan’s third landslide”; the stunning election of this last November is more evidence that the slow realignment begun in 1980 is deepening.
In 1948 the liberal historian Richard Hoftsadter wrote in that Franklin Roosevelt’s passing “left American liberalism demoralized and all but helpless.” Conservatives mourn the passing Reagan, but will never be demoralized and helpless because they have taken to heart the message Reagan always wanted to be his legacy, never more poignantly stated than in his last public message in 1994: America’s best days are ahead.
–Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order, 1964-1980. He is presently at work on a second volume, The Age of Reagan: Lion at the Gate, 1980-1989, from which this article is adapted.