The meek, self-flagellating response of the Democrats to Ronald Reagan's State of the Union message shows, again, their genius for missing the point.
The world's oldest political party has assumed a pose that its formative spirits, from Jefferson to FDR, would find undignified and contemptible. They looked inward for political bearings -- like, as I shall suggest, Ronald Reagan.
The new mood of servility seems to have struck last summer, when in his acceptance speech Walter Mondale proclaimed that Democrats had heard, and would heed, the message of 1980. Listening is a good exericse, but in politics it isn't the same as pandering. The hand-wringing pose will at best yield hand-me-down views and goals, not the political music of the next era.
But surely the point, too obvious to miss, is that the Democrats miserably misunderstand the Reagan phenomenon. As his fifth State of the Union speech shows, Reagan is what he is, and -- more especially -- is what he was; and it has little to do with the drift of political fad and fashion.
The great frozen frame of Reagan's last starring performance takes us back to the 1976 campaign. A Reagan position paper, issued that spring, demanded a startling transfer of some $90 billion in fiscal responsibilities from Washington to the states.
Remember? Remember, too, the howl of disbelief and derision that arose at the sight of so hilariously regressive an idea? Not merely at the idea itself, which seemed to kick against a half-century of history, but at the naivete of saying it out loud in a presidential campaign? Why, it was merely an example (we all said) of the Coolidge-era fantasies that swarmed Ronald Reagan's dream world, the sort of thing that would keep seats safe and warm for Democrats.
Now we know the rest of the story -- or a chastening pf it.
After the storm of contemptuous comment blew over the $90-billion transfer plan, the Gipper indeed reviewed his strategy -- the strategy, mind you, not the goal. Now, almost a decade later, the idea still lives in the polished lines of the message, and the line-items of the new budget -- and is much closer to being realized than anyone imagined. It lives in the notion that a money-pinched Washington (pinched because the president has cut its allowance) must yield billions of dollars' worth of responsibilities to the money-flush states.
Conventional Washington wisdom, which knows no party, has long dismissed Ronald Reagan with a variation on the old witticism -- "He had only one idea, and it was wrong." But in political terms, at least, it dismisses him no longer. Probably the clearest source of Reagan's success is that he is not bothered by his manifest divergence from conventional wisdom, Washington's or anyone else's. He takes bearings from private constellations; he is, in David Riesman's term, an "inner-directed" politician in a lonely crowd of conformists. That he is so confoundedly affable in his heresy, wholly lacking the beady-eyed look of the true believer, gives it a velvety look.
So while his critics, including yours truly, keep saying what he can't do, he keeps doing it, and in broad daylight too. And insofar as the Democrats' exercise in ostentatious humility and getting back in touch with the crowd tells us anything at all, it tells us they're still missing Reagan's secret. They clearly read him as a politician who succeeded fabulously (at their expense) by hearing something they didn't hear, gurgling up from subterranean founts of popular wisdom. In fact, Reagan was listening to his own drummer. And when the cadence of the march began to change, it was everyone else, not Reagan, who altered step.
This is to speak only of the indices of political success, which leaves a lot aside. You may fear that if there's a god of th balanced books and no free lunch in heaven, his thunderbolts will get to Ronald Reagan in the end.
Even if they do, the Democrats should get one thing straight. It wasn't a Reagan Era that gave us Reagan; it was Reagan who gave us a Reagan Era. And until they see that his secret is vision and persistence, not pandering, the Democrats will not make a dent in it.