EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appeared in the May 15, 1981, on National Review.
Those who believed that President Reagan lost valuable political momentum during his recuperation should have informed Tip O’Neill, who, in one of the more remarkable political pronouncements, threw in the towel. “Many of the Democrats” will back Reagan’s economic package, O’Neill said. “I can read Congress…They go with the will of the people, and the will of the people is to go along with the President…I’ve been in politics a long time, and I know when you fight and when you don’t.”
And so Reagan’s revolution rolls forward. It is a peculiarly American revolution. There are no mobs in the streets, no revolt in the fleet, no storming of Winter Palace or Bastille, no jailing of the opposition. It is a revolution whose intense inner seriousness is masked by jokes, as once again American politics demonstrates its remarkable capacity for absorbing major changes.
In his televised address to a joint session of Congress, the President once again showed himself to be a master of timing and symbolism. He took lethal aim at traditional liberal wimpism about our “sick society.” Sick societies, he said, “don’t produce men like the two who recently returned from outer space. Sick societies don’t produce young men like Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who placed his body between mine and the man with the gun simply because he felt that’s what duty called for him to do. Sick societies don’t produce dedicated police officers like Tom Delahanty or able and devoted public servants like Jim Brady. Sick societies don’t make people like us so proud to be Americans and so very proud of our fellow citizens.” Reagan may not have had Jimmy Carter’s “national malaise” speech consciously in mind; but, nevertheless, he provided a direct answer to it.
Reagan turned his own recovery into a metaphor for the nation, and he frankly demanded radical change: “The old and comfortable way is to shave a little here and add a little there. Well, that’s not acceptable any more. I think this great and historic Congress knows that way is no longer acceptable.” In those phrases there were Kennedy resonances, but buttressed by reality.
Reagan, crucially, made a bipartisan appeal–seizing the opportunity to split the Democrats by endorsing the substitute budget measure advanced by Representative Phil Gramm, a Texas Democrat, and Representative Delbert Latta, an Ohio Republican. In all essentials it resembles the White House proposal. Reagan said, Welcome aboard; and many Democrats will accept the invitation.
Reagan has had the skill to make his revolution appear to be simple common sense. “Our government is too big and it spends too much.” Ovation. Massive public support. Four standing ovations from the Congress. Reagan’s political momentum appears to be irresistible. Peering gloomily over the President’s shoulder in the upper-right-hand quadrant of the screen, Speaker O’Neill’s rotund countenance said it all. The settled assumptions of half a century were being tossed into the wastebasket. Remember, you were there when it all happened, in 1981.