THE REAGAN Revolution -- such as it was -- is ending. And not a moment too soon for Republicans who hope to continue controlling the White House. Doctrinaire conservatism is becoming a GOP political liability.
Despite the flurry of patriotic fervor stirred up by Oliver North's testimony, early summer events seem to have made no impact on spring national poll date showing that some 50 to 60 percent of Americans believe that the 1988 elections should move the United States in a new direction rather than continuing the policies of the Reagan administration. Although voters always get a little restless after a president has been in office for seven years, a more substantial disenchantment seems to be underway: Ronald Reagan has already lost his larger-than-life status in U.S. politics -- and now he's in danger of fading beyond lame-duckhood to what verges on irrelevance. A decline like that could well turn U.S. politics on its head.
This negative perception is not yet carved in stone, but it's been rapidly taking shape in the last eight weeks. Negative reactions to the president's wilting performance at the Venice economic summit were followed by the persisting public belief that Ronald Reagan has been lying about the Iran-contra scandal, and by pervasive national apathy to his June-July clarion call on budget issues.
The whys and wherefores are critical in measuring public disillusionment. Part of it is simply belief that a popular President, at age 76, is no longer on top of things. The Iran-contra imbroglio helped prove that, too, besides impugning administration integrity.
Yet it's also central to the president's emerging weakness that Reaganism itself has been a much-exaggerated phenomenon -- less the stuff of an ideological watershed and more a transient product of the crosscurrents and frustrations of post-Watergate America. Back in 1980, a 69-year-old actor could do the job of president. Times were ripe for a genial, reassuring, patriotic "father figure" able to enlist Americans in important national direction-changes. Now, however, the public senses that this capacity and context is becoming steadily less relevant as we move into a new era. Deeper expertise and more hands-on leadership is called for. The result is another major challenge for the U.S. political system -- and also a challenge to the Republican Party.
Historically, U.S. political parties haven't had an easy time holding power after either great leaders or incompetents leave the White House -- and Ronald Reagan is a bit of both. Both his positive and negative legacies are creating strains, albeit in different dimensions. So theGOP now faces the dilemma of blending fidelity to Reagan Era achievements like strengthened defense and incentive economics with several necessary negative recognitions:
First, that with so many voters wanting directional change, part of the Reagan record has to be pushed aside and even subtly repudiated.
Second, that the "Reagan coalition" (which essentially extended the 1972 Nixon coalition) is breaking down.
And third, that any Republican president elected in 1988 must play a very different role than previous GOP chief executives of the last two decades.
The notion of carrying on the "Reagan Revolution" is a straitjacket the Republican Party must escape from. The irony is that the president's current unraveling may actually help loosen the party from its bonds. Bear in mind here that when January 1989 rolls around, the Republicans will have been in office for 16 of the previous 20 years, occupying the White House long enough in this political cycle to effect a major national mood change. Essentially, that has been accomplished.
The conservative revolt that began 20 years ago was principally directed against liberal permissivism -- cultural, moral, economic and military. For those who can't recall the rhetoric, the litany of sins included mugger-loving judges, campus disorder, busing, drugs, inflation, welfarism, flag-burning and liberal refusal to commit decisive resources or willpower -- to "win or get out" -- in Vietnam. The southern, blue-collar and ethnic Democratic constituencies that shifted to the Republicans reflected revulsion with these tendencies. The defections drove the Democrats down to a mere 38-43 percent of the presidential vote in four of five elections -- 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1984. The ensuing rightward shift in culture, economics and patriotism has been substantial.
My point is that a central dynamic going back two decades can hardly be given a 1980 "Reagan Revolution" label.
The trouble is, Reaganism also bred excesses. To the extent a "Reagan Revolution" took place, it went beyond the middle-of-the-road conservative, anti-permissive mood-change disrupted but not derailed in the 1970s by Watergate. The unique frustrations of the 1970s also generated some ideological radicalism that flowered after 1980's surprisingly lopsided victory. Zealots in the Reagan movement acknowledged few restraints and even disavowed prior GOP centrism. They aimed to create a Brave New World of resurgent capitalism, crusading traditional morality and renewed U.S. global military respect.
And they did, in part. But just as 1960s liberalism was too ideological and permissive to command the support of Middle America, kindred deficiencies characterize "Reagan Revolution" conservatism. Let me suggest that we can now fairly make a new laundry list of unpopular conservative permissivism -- towards mergers and corporate raiders, budget deficits and government borrowing, excessive industrial deregulation, financial speculators, Japanese trade negotiators, profiteering ex-White House aides, constitution-stretchers, TV preachers and run-amok military adventurers.
Warped by these excesses, "conservatism" is more likely to produce backlash than further political realignment. Indeed, after seven years, the so-called "Reagan Revolution" has exceeded the basic guidelines voters have put in place for the new conservatism over two decades. Most of the abuse has been in Ronald Reagan's second term, and I suspect that if he had retired in 1984, he'd enjoy a better place in the history books. Because he didn't, though, GOP strategists now face a great challenge: Sorting out and consolidating the more traditionalist achievements of the Reagan Administration while moving away from the extremes of conservative permissiveness.
On the international front, Reaganism has been an unusual mix of flag-waving and naivete. One hardly need embrace novelist Gore Vidal's recent observation that power is now shifting to Tokyo much as it moved from London to New York 70 years ago to suggest that Ronald Reagan has failed to reverse the United States' own neo-imperial decline during the 1980s. On the contrary, he may have even speeded it up, sacrificing U.S. global economic power by borrowing money overseas to finance a debt level that permits painless rearmament.
Cataloging the ongoing 1980's U.S. decline in both military and economic dimensions is, regrettably, all too easy. For example, a map showing former or soon-to-be-terminated U.S. military bases around the world would be almost as vivid as a map of Britain's imperial decline. Moreover, the actions of the United States in invading Grenada and launching last year's airstrike at Quadafi's Tripoli, while legally justifiable (and even psychologically refreshing), do suggest a smokescreen of gunboat diplomacy to mask the larger geopolitical decline that's really occurring.
And the administration's new, post-Ollie North determination to fight for more contra aid could also be too little, too late. As for the economic front, one can chart the rise of the peace-time budget megadeficit, the huge trade deficit so out of keeping with great power status, the decline of the dollar, the emergence of the United States as the world's leading debtor nation, the displacement of U.S. banks on the global top-10 list, and so forth. It's a depressing sequence.
In fact, Ronald Reagan could even be remembered as the American president who presided over a larger national comedown than Vietnam. True, the United States has been losing ground since the 1960s, and some retreat or pullback can be laid at each president's doorstep in turn. Yet it was the Reagan administration that had so little sense of history it wound up talking about morning again in America when it was twilight in the trade statistics and other measurements of U.S. potency. Picking up the pieces after this adminstration won't be easy in 1988 as voters and candidates -- Republican and Democratic alike -- have to cope with the new U.S. global reality.
On the most obvious level, the president's difficulties put the Republicans -- especially 1988 presidential candidates -- in a pickle. Shifting away from the fading Reagan presidency and ideological blueprint isn't easy, not least because national disillusionment isn't uniform. Recent polling data indicates that the independent voters who will be decisive next November favor new national directions by roughly two-to-one. But nearly two-thirds of Republican voters continue to prefer extended Reaganism, meaning that the politics of winning the nomination could require an ideological loyalty likely to be a handicap in the general election.
However, it's in this respect that the president's growing difficulties could even have their silver lining. Ironically, this may enable the GOP to catch up with the flow of history -- by which I mean embrace a more moderate ideology, hone a recognition that the high-powered, cutting edge years of conservatism are behind us, and develop an understanding that the key demand and challenge of the next presidency will be effective, consolidationist governance. And the Republicans are not without assets here. They have several of the most experienced centrist figures in contemporary U.S. politics. And the Democrats have. . . the Seven Dwarfs.
Had Ronald Reagan's personal popularity and credibility remained higher, it's hard to imagine how Republican contenders could have moved far enough away from him to please an electorate seeking change. Inertia has prevailed before. Dwight Eisenhower's popularity cast that kind of shadow when his vice president, Richard Nixon, ran for president in 1960. But in 1987, the increasing evidence of national disbelief in President Reagan has spurred a GOP movement away from fidelity -- epitomized by Vice President George Bush -- towards independence, as represented by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole. In many polls the gap between the two now appears to be only a matter of five to 10 points.
It could be a critical transition. Normally, it's hard for a regime that's been in power for eight years to turn to a fresh and even partially dissenting White House contender. Yet that is what Dole represents: nominal Reaganism, in which embrace of the administration's strengths and successes is diluted by a clear record of favoring a less ideological economic policy, a greater willingness to embrace active government and a more strategy-minded and less Errol Flynn-like foreign policy. The GOP Senate leader is also blunt in eschewing the easy answers Reagan ideologists have favored: "If you don't want to make hard choices, then I'm probably not the candidate."
The emphasis of a Dole -- or for that matter, a Howard Baker -- would be on experience and effective governance, precisely where the Republicans ought to be at this ambiguous, incipient gear-shifting stage in our history. Perhaps equally important, Dole -- who tells audiences about growing up poor in Kansas and, as county attorney, having to approve welfare checks for his grandparents -- is relentless in his rhetorical self-distancing from the dog-eat-dog, J.R. Ewing economic culture that has come to symbolize the downside of Reaganomics.
All in all, a Dole-type candidacy, the one most feared by many Democrats, could fill the logical GOP electoral role of consolidating Reagan achievements, moving away from Reagan weaknesses, and providing an effective four- to eight-year transition before the pendulum's likely movement back in the activist-progressive direction.
No Republican contender can state things so bluntly, of course. And given the apparent lack of a smoking gun in the Iran-contra investigation, President Reagan will exit the White House stage to warm Republican applause. Yet the record he leaves behind is only a mixed one -- relative first-term success, coupled with three subsequent years of diminishing competence and relevance. The extent to which his "Revolution" was half substantial achievement, but half failed radical experiment, will leave historians with a challenging job of sorting-out. But for 1988 Republican presidential candidates, the process has already begun -- and the result is an increasing display of independence. An era is clearly over.
Kevin Phillips is a political analyst and publisher of the American Political Report newsletter.