Perhaps President Reagan should not be expected to offer a balanced assessment of his achievements so far. He certainly didn't when, in an interview with Fortune magazine, he was asked whether his administration might be "just a four-year blip off the long-term national direction." He responded:
"No, I feel that we did just about a 180-degree turn in the course of government, and I'd like to feel that it reflects what the people out there are thinking."
Leave aside the question of in what sense it can ever be said that the people "out there" are thinking about the course of government. But it should be said that Reagan's statement, like other persons' hyperbole about a "Reagan revolution," is notably unhistorical.
Nothing Reagan has done or aspires to do is comparable to what Franklin Roosevelt did in the mid-1930s. FDR altered, fundamentally and irrevocably, the relationship between the citizen and the central government. That government assumed responsibility for the nation's economic health--the aggregate economic output--and for a minimum material well-being of the individual.
If Reagan wants to repeal those federal responsibilities (a repeal that would constitute a real revolution), he has not said so. And he had better not. If Carter had succeeded in portraying Reagan as bent on repealing the New Deal and dismantling the welfare state, Carter might have carried 44 states.
Reagan's most "revolutionary" measure is said to be the cut in personal income taxes. But that cut is primarily a measure to enable people to run in place, a measure to counter the silent, unlegislated tax increases imposed by inflation. The National Journal calculates that "no category of taxpayer will have a significantly lower tax burden in 1984 than in 1977." This is a "revolution"? A "180-degree turn"?
Analysis of the 1980 election results does not reveal a call for a 180-degree turn. Reagan's 10 percentage-point margin of victory over his Democratic opponent was impressive, but it was only the ninth biggest margin in the 21 elections in this century. It was smaller than three Democratic victories (1932, 1936, 1964) and five Republican victories (1920, 1924, 1928, 1956, 1972). And Reagan's electoral margin should be seen primarily as Carter's electoral deficit.
Reagan has so improved the nation's mood that it is hard to recall how sour was the mood about Carter. In January 1960, Eisenhower's job-approval rating was 57 percent. Ford's was 45 percent in the summer of 1976. Truman's was 32 percent in June 1952. But Carter's record-smashing collapse put him at 21 percent in June 1980.
Not surprisingly, on Nov. 4, 1980, Carter lost 4 of 10 of his 1976 supporters. There was one dominating fact of 1980 and it was not a national conversion to conservative ideology. It was a desire to see Carter gone.
In a Yankelovich poll in January 1981, 63 percent said that the primary reason for Reagan's victory was dismay about Carter. Only 24 percent called it a mandate for conservatism. Even Republicans and self-described conservatives agreed (54-34 and 57-30 respectively).
William Schneider of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, writing in a volume published by the American Enterprise Institute, says the electorate was not "convinced" about conservatism, but was tolerant about it, willing to give it a chance. Schneider says every election offers a "plebiscitary choice" (a chance to say how the government is being run) and an "ideological choice" (a chance to say which candidate or party comes closest to one's ideological beliefs). Carter's campaign strategy was to emphasize the ideological choice. Reagan struggled successfully to make the election turn on the plebiscitary choice.
That is, Reagan won because he kept the election from being a referendum on conservative ideology. Bear that in mind as Congress is asked to make more cuts in domestic spending--and as Congress instead turns against defense spending.
It is not true that Republicans won because they have "ideas," or that Democrats desperately need to originate some ideas. Certainly, they need Jacksonism--part Andrew, part Scoop: balanced-budget liberalism, laced with nationalism. But what they most need are Republican mistakes.
Mistakes by those in power make an opposition party seem intellectual. Democratic mistakes made the GOP seem intellectual, so it can happen to absolutely any party. Thus the Democratic Party can sit back and wait to see how sturdy is the basket of economic theories into which Republicans have put all their eggs.