Richard Reeves is not buying the argument that the election and subsequent reelection of Ronald Reagan mark a historic turning point in American political life. The massive realignment so devoutly prayed for by Republican strategists seems to him a most unlikely prospect. His central theme in this slender volume is that Reagan is a fluke -- a fascinating and important one, to be sure, and one the historians will have to reckon with, but a fluke all the same. As he puts it:
"Reagan proved to be a principled and determined leader who won many battles, but lost his war to change the American direction. The Reagan years would be a detour, necessary if sometimes nasty, in the long progression of American liberal democracy. Americans seemed destined to choose political and social individualism over economic individualism, continuing to uphold and defend government, sometimes grudgingly, as the most trustworthy available protector against accumulations of wealth and the other sources and manifestations of private power."
This passage suggests nothing so much as that there is a fine line between analysis and wishful thinking, and that Reeves may well have crossed it in the wrong direction. He clearly believes, as a statistical study published in 1968 claimed, that "at the practical level of government operations, there has been an inexorable trend in liberal directions in the United States since the New Deal," and his own analysis of the Reagan phenomenon is deeply influenced by that belief. He gives the devil his due, praising Reagan as politician, national leader and spokesman for conservative ideas, but he is convinced that once Reagan has left the White House the nation will revert to its post-'30s pattern of governmental activism -- the pattern that Reeves leaves little doubt he himself prefers.
Perhaps this is true. Certainly, as Reeves is at pains to point out, there seems to be a considerable gap between public support for Reagan personally and politically and for Reagan the ideologue who wants Americans "to put their government where their mouths were -- to mean it, as he did, when they said, 'Government is best that governs least.' " But Reeves fails to distinguish clearly enough between public support for government programs that benefit Reagan's middle-class constituency and public indifference toward those that seek to improve the lot of the welfare and unemployed classes. It is these latter programs that constitute the traditional New Deal liberal agenda; Reeves fails to make a persuasive argument that this liberal tradition is sufficiently strong to make a comeback in the post-Reagan era.
He is on far firmer ground when he contends that this post-Reagan era is almost certainly going to be different from what conservative Republicans hope. He sees the GOP as "an atom -- a series of concentric circles around an electromagnetic nucleus marked 'Ronald Reagan,' " and, he suggests, "pull out the center, the nucleus of the whirling mass, and the whole thing might implode." Reeves understands that Reagan's constituency is his own, not his party's, and that when he leaves the scene the country is less likely to continue his conservative revolution than it is to resume the centrist policies that have dominated postwar politics.
On this and other essentially political questions, Reeves usually knows what he is talking about and often is provocative; he has been one of our better political writers for some years, and he has a firm grasp of political mechanics. But in one area -- "the business of political thinking and the marketing of policy ideas" -- he takes a nose dive. Although he is quite correct in noting that the post-Goldwater emergence of the conservative think tanks played a central role in the success of Reagan, the candidate who was best able to articulate the ideas produced by those think tanks, he falls into the trap of believing that what politicians call "ideas" bear any actual relationship to the process called "thought."
When Reeves quotes one think-tanker as saying that "ideas are now the way you do business in Washington," he does not seem to realize that the phenomenon under question is not serious thought but the manufacture of slogans. A Democratic strategist tells him, "Things like 'supply-side economics' may have been bad ideas, but they were ideas," but that is not true at all; they are slogans being fobbed off as serious political inquiry. Because Reeves fails to recognize this, he is able to persuade himself that the Reagan victories were triumphs not of personality but of ideas; in actuality they were triumphs of slogans, of which Ronald Reagan may be the most artful merchant American politics has ever known.