Reagan’s Lasting Realignment
It shapes politics still


Liberals often remind us that President Obama inherited many problems when inaugurated. But his most debilitating inheritance may have been this triumphalism and the arrogance it inspired, which led him to pursue the most ambitious liberal policy agenda in decades.

Obama’s first year saw many Democratic legislative accomplishments, chief among them a budget that contemplated tripling the national debt over the next decade. The American people were ambivalent, because they saw little or no benefit — and considerable harm — accruing from Obama’s marquee legislative achievements. The next year Obamacare passed, and its unpopularity hurt the Democrats even more. Not surprisingly, then, after two years in office, one out of every seven Democrats had left the fold. Identification with the Democratic party fell from 36 percent to 31 percent, while the GOP share of the electorate ticked up modestly, from 28 percent to 29 percent. Gallup characterizes this six-point shift in only two years as “notable.” Other national surveys, such as those conducted by the Washington Post/ABC News and the New York Times/CBS News, recorded even steeper net Democratic declines.

How does this record compare with that of Reagan’s first two years? In 1980, party identification averaged 45 percent for the Democrats and just 23 percent for the GOP. During his first year in office, Reagan fired thousands of striking air-traffic controllers, convinced Congress to enact his historic budget and tax cuts, retooled our military, and reversed virtually every aspect of Pres. Jimmy Carter’s failed national-security strategy. The mainstream media and Washington’s insiders roundly ridiculed these initiatives and warned that they would lead to further economic stagnation and even a full-scale nuclear war. The American public disagreed. They rewarded the Republicans with a four-point gain in party identification while setting Democrats back by the same amount.

Like our current president, Reagan assumed office during very challenging times. During his transition, a team of advisers wrote:

1980 may well have been the most crucial year for the American economy in half a century. . . . No American President since Franklin Roosevelt has inherited a more difficult economic situation.

Sound familiar? As with Obama, Reagan’s early years in office were dominated by a nasty recession — falling GDP accompanied by double-digit unemployment, interest rates, and inflation.

And, as with Obama, the recession was slow to dissipate. After nearly two years, voters had realized no dividends from the historic Reagan spending and tax cuts. But even after losing back some of 1981’s gains in 1982, the GOP was still up two percentage points since Reagan had taken office. Contrast that to the Democrats’ six-point decline in party identification during Obama’s first two years.

Of course, we know the rest of the Gipper’s story. With his economic plan in place, the economy took off, and his arms buildup cast the die for the ultimate fall of the Soviet empire and international Communism. Not surprisingly, Republican fortunes took off. Identification with the GOP surged from 24 percent in 1983 to 29 percent in 1984 and 32 percent in 1985. It would remain at 30 percent or higher for the rest of the decade. The Democrats’ party identification experienced a decline every bit as dramatic as the Republican gains, falling from 43 percent in 1983 to 34 percent in 1985, where it remained virtually unchanged throughout the 1980s.

August 1, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 14

Books, Arts & Manners
  • David Paul Deavel reviews G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, by Ian Ker.
  • Victor Davis Hanson reviews The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East, by Reuel Marc Gerecht, and Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism, by Charles Hill.
  • Daniel J. Mahoney reviews Why Niebuhr Now?, by John Patrick Diggins.
  • John Derbyshire reviews Such Is This [email protected], by Hu Fayun, translated by A. E. Clark.
  • Ross Douthat reviews Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .