In the final analysis, all politics is local. -- The late Richard J. Daley, former mayor of Chicago
MOST OF THE Republican candidates for president in 1988 talk of furthering the "Reagan Revolution." Most Democratic candidates, however, do not talk of undoing the Reagan Revolution. They know better. They well understand that, with the exception of his judicial appointments, almost everything that President Reagan has accomplished can be swiftly undone by a single session of a heavily Democratic Congress, or by the stroke of a pen from a new Democratic president himself.
In short, while insignificant changes have been made, there has been no Reagan Revolution. At least not by the standards of Franklin Roosevelt, or even Margaret Thatcher.
When Roosevelt governed, he created a power base for his politics that endured long after his death. He forged a coalition that lasted more than 50 years by creating programs that in turn created new constituencies for the liberals. One does not have to agree with the New Deal to admire the way Roosevelt institutionalized it.
Similarly, Mrs. Thatcher's privatization programs created new constituencies for her Conservative Party. Slum dwellers living in public housing suddenly became Conservative voters when they were allowed to purchase their own apartments and actually own them. The same holds true for the many workers who became stockholders as nationalized firms were converted back to private ownership.
By contrast, President Reagan's policies have created no new conservative constituencies. On the contrary, the same old liberal establishment is in place, just waiting for the election of the next Democratic president.
The one attempt by the president to change things drastically was his proposal in early 1981 to consolidate most of the existing federal monies into block grants and turn the money over to the control of state legislatures.
Shortly afterwards, I happened to be in the audience at a national conference of welfare officials in Minneapolis. The speakers described Reagan's initiative as "diabolical," and they had good reason to be worried. Here was a reform that would have altered the political landscape by taking power away from liberal constituencies. It would have forced liberal allies to compete against each other for funds and would have allowed state legislatures to create their own uses for the money.
The liberals, despite the Reagan landslide and the Republican Senate, still had enough political power to kill this measure within eight months of Reagan's election.
Likewise, Education Secretary William Bennett's proposal to voucherize certain of his programs was Dead on Arrival in the Congress. Again the liberals, despite Ronald Reagan's historic reelection, used their real power to stop it. Without the strength to effect such reforms, the "Reagan Revolution" turned out to be not a revolution at all but rather a temporary bloodless coup.
When conservatives finally realize that it is not "morning in America" any more and that the Reagan "Revolution" will vanish into thin air the minute he leaves office unless someone who is more radical and confrontational than Reagan takes his place, perhaps then the right questions will, at last, be asked.
The Republican Party spent $1 billion on national elections during the past decade. The conservative movement spend another $200 million, and business PACs and individual contributors over $300 million, supporting national Republican candidates during the same period. That is more than $1.5 billion spent on national elections and very little to show for it. Why?
The first reason is that many conservatives are monarchists at heart. They love the presidency. They think that if you own the presidency, that is all that really counts. Richard Nixon should have proven the case against that theory once and for all, but the idea persists. A few conservatives have now come to the conclusion that Congress is just as important (while a few of us lonely analysts would insist that it is more important); but almost no conservatives, until now, have believed that if you control local politics you will control national politics. Therefore, Republicans and conservatives have put nearly all their resources into national races, while liberals and Democrats have not forgotten that local and state politics enabled them to stop the Reagan Revolution dead in its tracks.
Whenever there is a vacancy in a congressional district, the liberals always have three times the number of attractive candidates available to run as do the conservatives. Moreover, liberal Democrats usually start any such race with a 20-point advantage. This is because there are simply more liberal Democrats at the state and local levels. They control nearly all the cities of any size. They dominate the counties. They hold a commanding lead in the state legislatures. Most members of Congress have served in city, country or state legislatures before being elected nationally. Liberals use local elections to launch their people into national politics. Conservatives seldom do.
The experience of the Reagan administration proves what Howard Phillips has been saying for years: that conservatives don't know the difference between power and influence.
Conservatives have had influence in the Reagan era. Our ideas land on the president's desk. Senators call us and ask our opinions. We have been able to influence the selection of some members of the cabinet. We are daily interviewed by the media and our opinions are read or seen by millions. Even our views are now debated in liberal media organs.
But we have no power. Having power presupposes holding "territory." We hold no territory. Nowhere in America today are conservative agendas moving though state legislatures. Here and there, we have conservative governors or Republican control of the legislatures, but not usually together, and Republican control often does not mean conservative control. Even when the Republicans controlled the U.S. Senate, the conservatives did not. The small band of liberal Republicans really dictated policy. We did not hold that "territory."
The labor unions are, by all estimates, in a state of decline. They represent the smallest percentage of the work force since the 1920s. The image of organized labor is worse today than it has been in decades, and even liberal newspapers attack the unions. Yet the agenda of organized labor moves unabated through the Congress. At least 10 major items sponsored by organized labor will likely reach the president's desk before the 100th Congress adjourns. How can that be? Why can any group which has such a poor image and is otherwise in trouble be so powerful in Washington? The answer is that organized labor exercises real power. It controls "territory." When someone gets elected with the help of organized labor, he either accepts the party line or he is in deep trouble.
Conservatives have no comparable group. The closest to the unions in size and potential influence are the fundamentalists and evangelicals. It was their move into the political process in the late 1970s that gave Reagan and the Republicans their significant moment in history in 1980.
Then, as soon as Reagan was in the White House, Chief of Staff Jim Baker announced that social issues would be on the "back burner." A prominent White House official was quoted as saying that the Religious Right would get "symbolism from us but never any substance." Mike Deaver said publicly that the Reverend Jerry Falwell was welcome to visit the White House, provided that he came in the back door.
Clearly, the Republicans want to use the Religious Right to elect themselves to office, while giving them nothing in return. Unfortunately, the Religious Right allowed this to happen.
In 1981, I urged Falwell to send the Republicans a strong signal that they could not take the Religious Right for granted. A good opportunity, I suggested, would be to endorse Chuck Robb, a Democrat, over Marshall Coleman, a Republican, in the Virginia gubernatorial elections that year. Robb wanted Falwell's support, and he was no worse than Coleman on the social issues; but Falwell backed off and ended up with a last-minute endorsement of Coleman. Coleman lost. Robb won without Falwell. The GOP got the message that you can do anything to the Religious Right and they will still support Republicans.
Most leaders of the Religious Right behaved the same way as Falwell. They were so happy, after years of isolation, to get invited to state dinners at the White House, that many forgot what had moved them to get into politics in the first place.
Leaders who behave like that politically don't generate a power base for themselves. Despite enormous resources and potential, the Religious Right holds no power. Little enough influence, but absolutely no power.
If conservatives are to win, beachheads must be established in liberal power centers. Religious Right leaders must be trained to act differently so that their agenda is taken seriously. And a local infrastructure must be built which will enable conservatives to begin to control real "territory" at the local and state level.
The growth in federal entitlements programs has crowded out the possibility for massive Great Society experimentation at the national level. Even if Ted Kennedy or Howard Metzenbaum should be elected president, federal spending would be limited by the budget deficits, rising debt, and Gramm-Rudman. Experimentation with new programs must now take place mostly in the states.
The liberals understand this shift in action. Conservative legislators tell me that five years ago they seldom saw liberal lobbyists in some of our more conservative states. Now the legislative halls are crawling with them, and in liberal states they are pressing their advantage. State Rep. Janet Polinsky, co-chairman of Connecticut's General Assembly Budget Committee, tells the world how proud she is that the already incredibly large state budget has grown a whopping 14 percent in 1987 to create 2,800 new state positions, mostly in housing and day care. The same story can be told all over America. The Great Society may be over in Washington, but it has just begun in the states.
For that reason, state and local conservative groups are springing up across the nation. In Connecticut, Richard Sweetser has put together the Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies to challenge liberalism directly at the state level. The Independence Institute does similar work in Colorado.
The National Foundation for Economic Research, founded by businessman Michael Valerio and run by Peter Thomas, is putting together a network of state-based foundations that will foster public policy research for state and local legislatures, encourage the formation of state PACs, and train campaign managers for conservative legislative candidates. Valerio's aim is to build a local infrastructure, recognizing that the monarchist-oriented GOP will never get the job done.
Here then lies the enormous opportunity for conservatives growing directly out of their failure to make permanent changes in Washington. To fight the next war rather than the last, to set the agenda rather than react to the liberals' agenda, conservatives must construct local operations so as to hold real territory, and thus create real power.
What if one state adopted a genuine plan for educational vouchers? They would work. And the NEA big lie that vouchers would destroy the public education system would be forever put to rest when public education turns out to be better and stronger in a voucherized state than in those where public education has a monopoly. From there, vouchers nationally would become a real possibility, whereas now such a real reform has no chance.
Because defense and foreign policy and national policies on major issues are still important, conservatives must not abandon what they have done in Washington in order to carry out this new direction. Quite the contrary, what goes on in Washington will take on significant new meaning when the liberals here learn that we have real troops and real power at the local level to back up our considerably better ideas in national politics.
Paul Weyrich is executive director of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress. This article is adapted from Policy Review.