A year ago today, when Ronald Reagan won his 49-state landslide reelection victory, the road looked open for a rapid realization of the conservative-policy revolution launched in his first term.
Today, though the initiative in most fields remains in his hands and the political opposition is both scattered and ineffective, Reagan is not measurably closer to achieving any of his major objectives.
Tax reform is stalemated; the budget deficit grows obdurately unchecked; the military buildup has been slowed; Reagan has been forced to give ground on issues from trade to South African sanctions; and the fate of his possibly conflicting ambitions for both an arms-control agreement and the development of a high-tech strategic defense lies in the hands of a crafty and enigmatic Soviet antagonist.
What has happened to deny -- or at least severely delay -- Reagan's enjoyment of the fruits of his victory?
A year's experience deepens my conviction that the "smart tactic" he adopted in 1984 has turned out to be very bad strategy. That tactic was to run for reelection on the record of the first term and to avoid using the campaign to set forth the agenda for the second.
It was a smart tactic. It denied the Democrats the chance to debate the choices and forced them to find fault with a status quo that was plainly comfortable for most voters. It worked so well that Reagan carried everything but the District of Columbia and his rival's home state of Minnesota.
The keynote of that campaign -- its only memorable line -- was Reagan's oft-repeated promise, "You ain't seen nothin' yet." It had a double meaning. It suggested that there were wonderful things in the offing if he were returned to power. But it also clearly conveyed the message that the voters would not find out about those plans until Reagan was safely back in the White House.
It was smart politics, but a rotten formula for government. The absence of content in the 1984 campaign stripped his victory of any element of policy mandate and set the stage for the backing and filling -- the genuine confusion -- that has characterized the first year of the second term.
Reagan of all people should have recognized the danger, for he had profited throughout his political career from doing exactly the opposite of what he did in 1984. He had always been a politician of conviction, who campaigned on the issues and used his speeches to create his own agenda. When he broke that habit in 1984, he abandoned his own formula for success and set the stage for this year's programmatic disappointments.
If that seems exaggerated, contrast the situation this fall with that four years ago, as the first congressional session of Reagan's first term came to a close.
That session saw the enactment of the basic building blocks of Reagan's policy revolution: an across-the-board tax cut for individuals and corporations, made permanent by indexing; a drastic slowdown in the growth of domestic government programs; and a massive transfer of resources from the domestic budget to military defense.
All those measures were written into law in the first eight months of Reagan's tenure because they were the programs on which he had campaigned, and on which three-dozen additional Republican senators and representatives had been elected. No one could doubt there had been a mandate.
In 1984 by contrast, Reagan said almost nothing about the second-term agenda. Not coincidentally, he was far less effective in spreading his coattails to help other Republicans win office.
So it should have been no surprise that this Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, has been far less responsive to his initiatives and almost heedless of his commands.
Reagan has been able to make two of his negative commandments stick. The campaign promises that he would not touch Social Security or raise taxes are intact. They were specific -- if foolhardy -- and Congress has been forced to respect them.
But what did Reagan promise to do positively? Not much. He said he'd reform taxes, but that promise was so vague that the specifics of the plan the administration finally managed to produce, months after the election, carried no presumption of political legitimacy.
Opponents could -- and did -- challenge Reagan's agents to produce one campaign speech in which the president ever suggested that he would tax employee fringe benefits or end the deduction for state and local taxes. Similarly with the budget, and defense, and issues of foreign policy from South Africa to the Soviet summit.
Opponents may gloat at Reagan's frustration, but I think it is costly to the nation and to people's confidence in the political process. Elections should set the nation's direction, and when a decisive election is followed by indecisive government, something basic has gone wrong.
In this case, it was the conception of the winner's campaign that was at fault. It succeeded so well in concealing Reagan's purposes that it failed.