A lot of people seem to be asking themselves these days whether the "Reagan revolution" is still on. Conservatives are increasingly worried that it isn't, and yearn for the early months of 1981 when Reagan's policy blitzkrieg overwhelmed Congress. Liberals are beginning to suspect that they might have been right all along, that the "revolution" is ending, and they will get a chance to dust off some of their most cherished policies and programs. (What they all suspect is true--the "Reagan revolution" is not still on. Which is not surprising, because there never was a "Reagan revolution," except for the title of an excellent book by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak.)
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and many of the events that followed were the political results of an intellectual movement that had been building for many years in the United States and, to a lesser extent, throughout the world. What has been called the Reagan Revolution is not completely, or even mostly, due to Ronald Reagan. He was an extremely important contributor to the intellectual and political movement that swept him to the presidency in 1980. He gave the movement focus and leadership. But he did not give it life.
A more useful analogy would be a glacier, for the movement of new ideas, once begun, is usually very slow, intermittent and, for a while, virtually unstoppable.
So the Reagan Revolution is not still on, because it never was. But the intellectual movement that caused certain political events that were misnamed a "revolution" continues.
By 1980, the political philosophy of liberalism was intellectually bankrupt. A new political philosophy, not yet fully formed, but built on the framework of conservative and libertarian ideas of the last several decades, is now beginning to control the national policy agenda.
Clearly a new policy agenda has been set for the nation. And the 1982 off-year elections essentially ratified that agenda and said let us continue, not change, the policy changes put in place during the past two years.
If we focus on what has changed and is beginning to work, rather than what has not changed or has not yet been resolved, some truly momentous policy shifts are occurring.
With all the talk about "cuts" in defense spending, we are now witnessing a massive increase in defense spending, widely supported by the American people, to restore the margin of safety this country enjoyed for so many years.
The capability of our intelligence community is undergoing a remarkable renaissance from the dim depths it sunk to in the late 1970s. The percent increase in our intelligence budget is perhaps the largest of any government agency, and working for the CIA no longer carries the risk of being a social pariah.
In arms control, rather than trying to settle for a limitation in the increase of nuclear weapons, we are determinedly pursuing policies that aim at an eventual reduction of those weapons.
The overall growth of federal spending, while still out of control, has been tamed somewhat. Politically sensitive programs have been curbed significantly. And limitations on politically untouchable programs, such as Social Security, are now being discussed openly--by both Democrats and Republicans.
Critical tax rates have been reduced sharply. And the overall tax rate, while not declining much, has stopped its skyrocketing climb, and the prospects for new, major tax increases--even with huge deficits looming out ahead--are nil.
Reagan has wisely recognized that the deficit occurred in spite of his economic policies, not because of them. There is a grudging, if sometimes silent, acceptance of the fact that the irresponsible economic policies of the past, followed by both Democratic and Republican administrations, put us on an inflationary binge that we are paying for now with an unexpectedly high cost. The once politically irresistible call for massive spending on new social programs and higher taxes to stimulate the economy are pretty much limited to aging liberal economists and politicians.
Economic policy deals with a very complicated issue, and there are numerous criteria for its success or failure. Interest rates and inflation, which had risen to desperately high levels by the end of the last decade, have been reduced substantially, and the prospects are that they will stay down. Unemployment is still unacceptably high, but there are few signs that it is getting worse. An extraordinary amount has been achieved in controlling federal spending and credit, even though that is often lost sight of in view of the tremendous effort that is still required. Tax rates have been prevented from rising to heights that would have reduced incentives to the point where the productive engine of our economy would have been throttled. And the policy of the Federal Reserve has become more stable, more predictable and less likely to send out signals that unnerve the financial markets.
Then there are the things that have not been done and are not likely to be done, things that are easily overlooked because it is difficult to remain aware of bad things that do not happen.
The most important part of the regulatory reform effort is not necessarily the hundreds of old regulations that were changed, modified and, in some cases, eliminated. The most important developments in the field of federal regulations are the new regulations that were never proposed and the lifting of the cloud of uncertainty that drifted over the economy as businessmen and professionals tried to anticipate what new constraints they would have to cope with in the future.
Every government program does at least some good, but the experience of the last 20 years or so has demonstrated to theeAmerican people that we simply cannot "buy" everything on the public- good shelf that we would like. Even the fabulously rich economy of the United States has limits that, if exceeded, can cause the opposite effect of what was intended. The result has been a virtual drying up of demands and proposals for major new social welfare programs.
The "Reagan revolution" that never was is no longer on. But the powerful intellectual movement that Reagan helped create still continues to rumble ahead--very slowly, sometimes pausing and retreating, sometimes grinding forward in a less than deft manner. But like a glacier that you can watch and not realize that it is moving until one of the trees in front of it crashes to the ground, the intellectual glacier that began to move in the 1950s still edges forward.
In that sense, the Reagan Revolution is still very much alive and well in Washington.