The Reagan/O'Neill Era

by Jonathan Bernstein

Ezra Klein starts the week off with a great find -- a David Broder column following the 1982 midterm elections in which Broder wrote Reagan's premature obituary:

What we are witnessing this January is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. "Reaganism," it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one- year phenomenon, lasting from his nomination in the summer of 1980 to the passage of his first budget and tax bills in the summer of 1981. What has been occurring ever since is an accelerating retreat from Reaganism, a process in which he is more spectator than leader.

Klein's points about how this applies to Obama are all well-taken.  However, on Reagan, he says: "The column...holds up fairly well in its criticism of Reagan's leadership style, if not in its prediction of Reagan's influence on the country's politics."

I disagree: I think Broder was absolutely correct.  In domestic policy, Reagan was pretty much finished with attempts at radical change after 1981.  And in foreign policy, Reagan never really departed in practice from the same Cold War realism and containment that Truman and all his successors shared.

The new status quo wasn't as much "Reaganism" as it was stalemate -- what some think of as a Reagan era stretching out from 1980 is, in my view, more properly thought of as the era of both Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, with neither liberals nor conservatives often able to control enough of the levers of government to actually implement much of what they want, but both able to block the initiatives of the other.   Seen in that way, the two paradigmatic initiatives after 1981 were the Clinton health care plan and the Bush social security plan, both of which failed to even come close to reaching the floor of either chamber of Congress despite unified party government.  And the key confrontation was the government shutdown of the winter of 1995-1996, which convinced a new generation of Republicans what Reagan learned in 1982: that the American people might say that they want a smaller government, but that actual cuts in programs are almost always unpopular.  But neither, after 1980, could liberals expand government significantly.  Stalemate.

Now, any time one starts characterizing large chunks of history one invites trouble.  Not everything from 1982 through 2008 was stalemate (just to pick one: the Americans with Disabilities Act was a major, and I think universally thought to be successful, piece of legislation). Conservatives had their triumphs, too, most notably by dominating new selections to the courts.  But the biggest conservative triumphs were about stopping liberals from getting what they wanted, not in successfully enacting the conservative platform (which helps to explain why conservatives still tended to express themselves, even during the best days of the Bush presidency, as if they were an oppressed minority, something that liberals found quite puzzling).

Of course, what everyone is interested in now is whether that era, however one describes it, has ended.  But that's another story, for another post.