EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appeared in the February 19, 1982, issue of National Review.
In the midst of the great FDR centenary celebration, President Reagan has been attending to the domestic issues of 1982, not 1933. On the television screen, the celebratory retrospective has to do with the failure of the banks and the Stock Market Crash, the Dust Bowl and the Mississippi floods, extreme rural poverty (especially in the South), the violent struggles over the sit-down strikes and union organization, the looming naval war in the Pacific, and the rise of the dictators in Berlin and Rome.
But this is 1982. National Review will be returning in due course to an historical assessment of Franklin Roosevelt, but in 1982 things are very different. The old Dust Bowl and the Southern hookworm belt have been irrigated and air-conditioned–and renamed the Sun Belt. This is now the fastest-growing and most prosperous part of the country. The South is no longer the Solid South that undergirded FDR’s electoral victories; it is now Reagan country. And the old Republican Northeast is now heavily Democratic.
In his first year, Ronald Reagan approached the new issues of the Eighties with the optimistic grace of the man whose centenary we are observing. Reagan has been the Happy Warrior. FDR suffered, and some say that it deepened him: a failed marriage, polio, an unfulfilled love. Reagan has had his own family problems; he also met his assassination attempt with the same personal grace FDR managed against polio. The nation correctly appreciated the symbolic character of both ordeals. If Roosevelt prevailed, the nation too might walk. If Reagan, seriously wounded, joked, then we might as well stop wringing our hands.
But, again, this is 1982. Roosevelt began the enormous centralization of power in Washington. He began it: he might as well have been appalled, were he to return today, by its metastasis. Reagan has to deal with that. Perhaps we needed, as former President Carter recently urged with some eloquence, rural electrification. Electric light replaced kerosene lamps. But surely it does not follow from that that the whole panoply of federal bureaucratic interventions existing is somehow ordained and sacrosanct as a legacy of the 1930s.
Reagan is trying to clean up the mess. In his State of the Union address, one of the great presidential speeches of recent years, Reagan proposed an idea of breathtaking validity. Its purpose is so clear that much commentary has missed it. This is no “diversion,” designed to distract attention from deficits or Poland. The President wants to get those federal programs back to the state level where they can be effectively reexamined–and maybe killed.
You just don’t kill existing programs in Washington. The special interests there have learned to operate much too effectively in the corridors of power. But, just possibly, if you dislodge those programs and let the states and localities take a fresh look at them, let the voters themselves have a say–then, very likely, many of them will be found to be not all that necessary. At levels below Washington, the voter will have a much clearer idea of what legislator backs what program.
It will be a tremendous fight. The last thing the special interests desire is that you yourself have a say in how your own money is being spent.
Here again, one parallel between Reagan and FDR may be noted. FDR had his own list of “special interests,” and sometimes he was right. But Reagan is trying to return to the taxpayers some control of the special interests in Washington who now have so much to say about their lives. Many of those latter-day special interests FDR played an important role in creating.
What we are witnessing is one of those important moments of American history. Entrenched blocs in Congress will fight tooth-and-nail for the status quo. In this they will get tremendous media support. But now we have Reagan’s finest hour. It sums up the meaning of his entire political career.