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Sunset in America

The end of the age of Reagan.

On May 3, 2007, ten aspirants to the Republican presidential nomination kicked off the long campaign with a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. The candidates disagreed about the issues and their respective qualifications--but each claimed Reagan's mantle.

"I think it's important to remember," said Mike Huckabee, "that what Ronald Reagan did was to give us a vision for this country, a morning in America, a city on a hill." John McCain talked about Reagan's fiscal austerity: "Ronald Reagan used to say we spend money like a drunken sailor." Tommy Thompson threw in a stilted but apposite observation: "We forgot to be coming up with new ideas, big ideas like Ronald Reagan."

Given the venue--and with Nancy Reagan in the front row--the candidates were being polite. They were also being sincere. Chiefly, though, they wanted to gain legitimacy with Republican factions that believed their politics were unsound. Tellingly, the candidates only once mentioned George W. Bush, who, until his popularity collapsed during his second term, had been touted within the party as a born-again Reagan. Instead, they all looked backward, beckoning to the restoration of a conservatism that had somehow lost its way.

What some experts envisaged, only three years ago, as a permanent Republican majority now looks like an illusion. The Democrats, despite their internecine battles over the presidency, remain in a potentially strong position and ought to win substantial majorities in both the House and Senate. Having claimed his party's nomination, John McCain must persuade many on the right that his campaign will not, as the radio polemicist Rush Limbaugh has predicted, "destroy" the Republican Party. As his remedial actions demonstrate, McCain cannot count simply on reassembling, yet again, the old Reagan coalition. "It's gone," Ed Rollins, Reagan's White House political director, has said. "It doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore."

If Rollins is correct, we have reached the end of an extraordinary era in American history. After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in 1964, the conventional wisdom held that a liberal consensus thoroughly controlled American politics. That consensus began to unravel in the late '60s, but it was by no means obvious that the right wing of the Republican Party would replace it. Even after Reagan won the presidency, many commentators regarded him as a fluke. David Broder of The Washington Post wrote off Reaganism early in 1983 as a "one-year phenomenon" and declared that the Reagan administration had reached its "phase-out."

Yet, by 2008, the surge of conservative politics that Reagan personified had survived brief interruption and temporary reversal and, like it or not, defined an entire political era--an era longer than that of either Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson, longer than the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, and as long as the period of liberal reform that stretched from the rise of the New Deal to the demise of the Great Society.

Any periodization of history is, of course, arbitrary and debatable. And, to be sure, the age of Reagan--the most sustained conservative political era in American history--does not, at a glance, seem as significant as other major periods. Reagan fell far short of eradicating either Franklin Roosevelt's revolution in government or the reforms of the 1960s. Contrary to the heroic portrait painted by his admirers (and, more recently, by some liberals with second thoughts), his presidency either caused or indulged enormous damage, ranging from the savings and loan catastrophe to the Iran-Contra affair. His success owed as much to continued confusion and division among Democrats as it did to his own strength.

Still, like Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan took over a political order in crisis, powerfully pronounced the principles of a new order, and, on some crucial issues, bent the nation to his will. He took ideas that had once been relegated to the ideological margins and carried them into the very core of American politics. By hastening the end of the cold war and altering some of the basic instruments of liberal reform (above all the federal courts and progressive taxation), the Reagan era changed the sum and substance of government at home and abroad. Given the era's longevity, the question is when and why it ran out of steam.

All history is shaped by the unexpected--yet, to an unusual degree, contingency has altered American politics since 1960. If not for the assassination in Dallas, a liberal age of Kennedy might have dawned. Without Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson could well have emerged as the overshadowing figure of the '60s. Had the crimes of Watergate been left unexposed, the '70s and after might belong to the age of Nixon. Instead, out of crises that upended both parties, Ronald Reagan and the right came to power.

The Democrats never fully recovered from their divisions over Vietnam. Likewise, the Republican establishment never fully recovered from Watergate, another unexpected consequence of Vietnam. Overwhelming Democratic victories in the midterm elections of 1974, followed by Jimmy Carter's election two years later, seemed to inaugurate a rebirth of the liberal consensus. But it was a mirage. Carter's blend of high-minded morality and Southern Progressivism alienated him from the party's left wing, which in turn hampered his efforts to rescue a failing economy. Finally, Carter's inability to master world events-- particularly the breakdown of cold war realpolitik in Iran, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan--doomed his administration.

Reagan and the Republican right did not, to be sure, win the presidency by default. Adding newly organized evangelical Christians to his coalition consolidated the Solid South. A plethora of right-wing think tanks rejuvenated or founded in the '70s gave Reaganism an aura of innovation. By placing on his ticket, in 1980, the man whom he had defeated in the primaries, George H.W. Bush, Reagan astutely completed a merger of the Republican right with the old battered establishment.

Reagan did not then proceed quickly to unite the American people behind him. At different points--when he survived his shooting by John Hinckley Jr. in 1981, when the economy recovered from the so-called Reagan recession in 1983, and after he embraced Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987--Reagan's public standing soared. But Reagan's average performance ratings in office rank only in the middle tier among modern presidents, on par with Bill Clinton's and below John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Reagan was also a divider, not a uniter. Based on the polling data, the gap between how Republicans and Democrats viewed him dwarfs that of his successor, the unheroic one-termer George H.W. Bush.

Reagan did have a knack, though, for peaking when it counted: during his reelection year in 1984 and in his final year in office. He also proved a shrewd operator regarding the two issues he cared about most--taxes and the cold war. His two major tax cuts, in 1981 and 1986, redistributed wealth upward to the already wealthy and sent deficits soaring. He ultimately secured his chief objective, which was to skew the progressive tax system. It is almost impossible to imagine the top marginal rate on personal income ever climbing back up to 70 percent (the figure when Reagan was elected). That change alone has dramatically curtailed the possibilities for liberal government.

In foreign affairs, the aggressive so-called Reagan Doctrine, actively supporting anti-communist insurgencies and governments around the globe, became, in some of his admirers' mistaken view, the key to Reagan's success. In fact, the doctrine won minor triumphs in places like Grenada, put enormous pressure on the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan (while arming Islamist radicals), caused a bloodbath in Central America, ran aground in Lebanon, and finally led to a severe constitutional confrontation with the Iran-Contra affair. Yet Reagan was also able to look beyond the right-wing vision, recognize Gorbachev as a genuine reformer, and launch the reversal of U.S.-Soviet tensions that ended the cold war.

Reagan's performance in other areas was mixed. Although he left the economy in far better shape than he found it, the draconian anti-inflation policies of his Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, as well as declining oil prices in the mid-'80s, deserve most of the credit. On the social and cultural issues dear to the religious right--from abortion to prayer in public schools--the administration delivered mainly lip service. The pro-business Reagan revolution hastened the decline of organized labor (and contributed to declines in real hourly wages), but it failed to reduce the size of the federal government; and its signal successes in deregulation and indifference to oversight contributed to various scandals (among them the looting of the Department of Housing and Urban Development). Aside from taxation and foreign policy, his most substantial legacies were stocking the courts with like-minded young conservatives and turning old right-wing nostrums like trickle-down economics into something approaching the conventional wisdom, at least within the Republican Party.

The chief political problem for the Reagan Republicans in advancing Reagan's policies after 1988 was his successor. The party turned to Reagan's loyal vice president, George H.W. Bush, the old establishment favorite, who had moved rightward on issues ranging from taxes to gun control. If the Democrats had found a convincing way to cohere as more than a collection of interest groups, it is possible the Republican ascendancy might have ended in 1988. But, after long experience as a congressional party--where distinct interests became entrenched--the Democrats nominated a colorless liberal, Michael Dukakis. After enjoying a large lead in the polls after his convention, Dukakis insisted on stressing his "competence" but declined to combat ferocious attacks. Most importantly, Reagan's rising popularity, wrought after Iran-Contra and during his partnership with Gorbachev, helped lift his vice president into the White House. The age of Reagan would continue. Yet its unraveling had begun.

Both of Reagan's successors tried, from different sides of the political spectrum, to foster renewed moderation. Both were hampered by the costs of Reagan's stewardship, as well as by the political furies from the left and the right, still galvanized by the crises from the 1960s and '70s.

George H.W. Bush faced the task of bringing the cold war to a close in a detached, realist fashion very different from Reagan's--yet he completed what Reagan had started. His major foreign policy triumphs--helping to achieve the reunification of Germany and assembling an international coalition to reverse Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--could not have succeeded without the personal working relationship he carefully built with Gorbachev. Public reaction to the Gulf war victory pushed Bush's approval figures to historic new heights.

But, on domestic matters, Bush found himself pilloried from the right. He might have foreseen the attacks as early as his nomination acceptance speech, when, alongside a tough-guy pledge not to raise taxes, he promised to offer a "kinder and gentler" America. ("Kinder and gentler than who?" Nancy Reagan is reported to have asked.) The Reagan years left behind not only a growing debt but additional costs from the savings and loan crisis that Reagan's zealous deregulation policies had precipitated. Faced with an intransigent Democratic Congress, Bush bowed to reality and raised taxes, immediately and forever persuading some Reaganites that he was a secret liberal. Bush's attempts to placate the right--by nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and by allowing Pat Buchanan to deliver a hair-raising culture wars opening-night speech at his re-nomination convention--alienated independents without fully winning over the right.

The bizarre third-party candidacy of Texas billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 showed how Bush had lost the popular confidence many had placed in Reagan. Perot, who got his political start supporting Nixon, was also a product of the age of Reagan--presenting himself as a no-nonsense businessman pitted against Washington insiders, playing up a twangy Texas populism that Bush imitated unconvincingly.

Political analysts disagree about whether Perot's candidacy did more harm to Bush or to the Democrat who defeated him, Bill Clinton. But the fact that Perot won 19 percent of the vote exposed the volatility of the electorate and an abiding alienation from politics--alienation which had first helped elect Jimmy Carter, but by now had gone haywire. The fractured vote augured poorly for a recreation of the political center.

Clinton offered the Democrats hope of reuniting the party's left wing and its traditional working- and middle-class base. But, before Clinton's inauguration, news that the Bush budget deficits--the lingering ills of Reaganomics--would be even larger than predicted helped persuade him that he would have to shelve the middle-class tax cut he had promised in favor of deficit reduction. Clinton's shift dismayed some liberals, which portended a renewal of old intramural fights among the Democrats. Only in time did it become clear that Clinton's policies were the foundation of the '90s boom, which lowered poverty rates and raised earnings in all income groups and across racial lines.

Clinton continually contended with the left wing of his own party as well as right-wing Republicans--and with his own personal demons. The failure of his health care initiative in 1994 capped nearly 18 months of missteps. Compounding Clinton's woes, left-wing Democrats and labor unions, already disturbed by his conversion to deficit reduction, rebelled at his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The recapture of the House by the Republicans in 1994 forced Clinton to adjust and adopt more measured and sometimes defensive tactics.

Clinton recouped by occupying the political ground between the right-wing hotspurs and the doctrinaire left. He seized Republican rhetoric about family values and filled it with his own liberal politics--a co-optation that the left would misunderstand and disparage as cynical "triangulation." Even worse, in liberals' eyes, Clinton signed a welfare-reform bill that he himself thought too punitive in some respects (and that he would later help ameliorate), believing it would be his only opportunity to overhaul what had become a degrading, divisive, and self-defeating welfare system.

On his right, Clinton faced a Republican Congress so dominated by its ideologues that even Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, one of the surviving traditional Republicans, grudgingly went along with the hard-right agenda. Yet Clinton outfoxed Republicans in battles over the budget that led to two government shutdowns. Instead of the Republicans forcing Clinton to capitulate to their demand to slash Medicare and cut taxes, the president held steady, and the public blamed Congress. And, when right-wing terrorists bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, Clinton regained the initiative by effectively denouncing the anti-government mood being stoked by the Republican right.

Clinton's comeback and his reelection seemed, at last, to establish a shaky political center--but his second term, and the election of his successor, saw that center collapse. This collapse insured that, despite Clinton's many successes, his presidency would belong to the age of Reagan. First, right-wing Republicans refused to accept the legitimacy of his reelection--House Majority Leader Dick Armey, for one, referred to Clinton as "your president"--and stepped up their efforts to destroy him. The discovery by right-wing operatives that Clinton had had a series of trysts with a young White House worker gave them the opportunity to set in motion the events that would lead to Clinton's impeachment. In Washington, and in the formally liberal metropolitan press, mounting fury at Clinton fed the impression that the right was in the saddle once again. Yet the partisan impeachment fight was profoundly unpopular with the public, and it brought back to Clinton even left-wing Democrats (including in the intelligentsia) who had regarded him as a betrayer of liberal principles.

With Clinton's popularity soaring, it looked as if 2000 would bring a solid Democratic victory. But nothing went right for the Democrats. Al Gore, who believed that scandal made Clinton a liability, distanced himself from the very administration he had served so well. Bush, a cipher to most, ran as a "compassionate conservative" who would uphold Reaganite principles but in the kinder, gentler mode of his father. The press gave credence to a string of bogus scandals and cast Gore as a privileged, self-regarding dissembler. The left retreated into its discontent with Clinton's politics of feint and maneuver and rallied to the protest candidacy of Ralph Nader. Like Dukakis, Gore failed to defend himself from the relentless Republican attacks. Thanks to Nader, and to the intervention of four Reagan-era appointees on the Supreme Court and the man Reagan named chief justice, George W. Bush became president. Clinton's precarious center had not held.

Contrary to what his campaign seemed to promise in 2000, Bush has governed as a radical, taking Reaganite ideas to their logical conclusion and beyond. Except for the shocking attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush might not have garnered the patriotic backing that earned him public approval that, in the short run, exceeded what his father enjoyed after the Gulf war and later remained just high enough to win him a second term. Over the painful years since then, his manifest failures have led him to suffer through the longest run of public disapproval yet recorded for any president.

Repeatedly, the Bush administration has exposed the exhaustion of Reaganism. The debacle in Iraq has challenged conservatives' claims to superior wisdom in foreign and military affairs, which for decades has been their prime claim to competence. The turn to regressive tax cuts has helped create monster deficits. Other disasters, above all the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina, exposed the dark consequences of small-government dogma. The Terri Schiavo affair, as well as some spectacular sex scandals, galvanized the public's revulsion at the hypocrisy of the religious right. The uncovering of massive corruption at the party's highest levels, notably in the Jack Abramoff case, prompted even Republicans to wonder if the GOP had been in power too long.

With the Bush legacy now tarnished, there was no dynastic succession that could hold together the disparate elements of the old Reagan coalition. The Republicans were left with a clutch of presidential contenders each standing for a fragment of a coalition in disarray.

The age of Reagan, born out of the center's collapse in the '60s and '70s, has, thanks to George W. Bush, finally lost its relevance, except as a nostalgic touchstone of bygone Republican glory. In one sense, it has been the victim of its own successes, having outlasted the Soviet Union, fundamentally altered the nation's political economy, and pushed the center of the nation's political gravity to the right. In another sense, it has owed its remarkable longevity to a confused and divided opposition, and to the persisting tenuousness of centrist politics. But what a new centrist politics might look like--whether Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal--is as yet difficult to envisage. We are, for the moment, caught between two political eras, the one dead, the other struggling mightily to be born.

Sean Wilentz is the author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008, which will appear in May.

By Sean Wilentz