As history itself becomes more visual — videos are the new scrolls on which we record and remember — we may look back on last night’s State of the Union as the moment when the long era of Reagan Republicanism finally passed. On one screen was the newly reelected and emboldened president eager to press his advantage over a bitter, dispirited and divided group of Republicans. And there was Marco Rubio, baby-faced and dry-mouthed in the spotlight, reaching over in one of the best product placements I have ever seen. (Poland Spring’s marketers must have loved it!) These contrasting images capture the moment at which the orthodoxy that individual freedom and comfort always trumps the communal good, which has reigned in Republican circles for almost 40 years, finally became a fringe movement.
The last 40 years of politics could be summarized in three presidential quotes, two from State of the Union speeches:
- “Government is not the solution; it’s the problem.” — Ronald Reagan
- “The era of big government is over, but we cannot go back to a time when our citizens were just left to fend for themselves.” — Bill Clinton
- “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot.” — Barack Obama
The reason Rubio and other Republicans are nervous is that the ground has shifted. A majority of Americans, judging by recent presidential elections, perceives that the low-tax, laissez-faire individualism of the Republican Party has not served the country well.
The Reagan era opened with a revolutionary call to end the New Deal era. Bill Clinton may have been the transition; we are right to still be suspicious of government, but we are not ready to embrace an economy based on survival of the fittest. And now Barack Obama, backed by an emerging coalition who believes in an activist government, asserts without qualification that government must help solve a a range of challenges from income disparity to climate change. This may not be the dawn of an Obama era, but it is the end of another.