I spent most of this past week in bed with the flu, fever, the whole deal. At various moments I did watch primary returns, concession speeches, chunks of debates, but until late Wednesday everything kind of blurred together. I know better than to take even my own under the weather analysis of the world seriously — the way you know that nightmares will seem implausible in the morning light. And yet, the lingering political thought I had this week was that the great political edifice of my era — Reaganism — begat no heirs.
Ronald Reagan was sui generis. The GOP presidents before him were not conservative. (Yes, there was a movement, but without the man it had gone nowhere.) And, in that somewhat removed way of his, while he inspired hundreds of millions around the world, he did not groom any real heirs at home. Then came George H.W Bush, who never really got it –despite many virtues. (Dan Quayle was actually a true Reagan conservative, but that’s another story.) Bob Dole, the 1996 candidate, was a Nixon Republican (though his V.P. candidate, Jack Kemp was a Reaganite). George W. Bush seemed to have it early on. But no, his belief in liberty abroad, which is noble, was unrelated in his mind to any practice of small government at home. By now the first generation of Reagan revolutionaries, who rose in the House and Senate in the 1980s and early 90s, have pretty much all flamed out.
Fred and Rudy — in their ways the two Reaganite candidates — ran terrible campaigns and won’t be back seeking the presidency. Huckabee is no conservative, McCain, who may indeed have been inspired by Reagan, is not a Reagan conservative and doesn’t even seem to comprehend what that would mean in any kind of theoretical way. His views seem largely to be idiosyncratic, justified by the fact that he holds them, which is why they are unpredictable. Romney, who may have become a conservative, was also never a Reaganite. He was a Bushie. His policy instincts appear to be weighted toward the empirical,which is not bad, but there is no real reason to think it will lead him toward smaller government and greater liberty either, should he get to be the nation’s CEO (a bad and telling metaphor for national leadership if ever there was one). Bill Clinton declared, in a moment of Reaganite homage, that “the era of big government is over.” Neither Hillary nor Obama will be bound by that. Their era trends the other way.
All of which is to say that Ronald Reagan’s legacy remains great in a post-Cold War world. But here at home the ideals that he himself never really got to institute — genuinely smaller government that is less involved in our lives, the abolition of certain federal departments, truly low taxes, a reversion to more conservative social norms of family structure – that particular shining city on a hill recedes from vision.