a very nice synopsis on why reagan’s legacy is the…
a very nice synopsis on why reagan’s legacy is the division he drew between the “mommy will protect me” liberal perfect state and the “individuals can accomplish anything” ideal.
DANIEL HENNINGER, Friday, June 11, 2004 12:01 a.m.
Next to Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most divisive president in the nation’s history. Lincoln ended a way of life for the American South. Reagan said that he was ending a way of life for American liberalism. As with Lincoln, the challenge Reagan posed to his opposition was not merely political or economic. It was profoundly moral–and so worth a death-struggle. The tensions and bitterness evident in the body politic today, and in the current presidential campaign, arrived in Washington in 1981 with the 40th president. This quiet week of remembrance is a temporary truce.
These are not cheerful thoughts at a time when all are calling to mind the grandest qualities in Ronald Wilson Reagan. But the bitterness of our politics now is a phenomenon admitted by all. People ask whence it arrived. The answer will not be found in George W. Bush’s west Texas accent or in his decision to depose Saddam Hussein. Ronald Reagan himself fired the first volleys–and hot lead it was–in his first inaugural speech, in 1981:
“It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.”
Listen to that speech and you hear the sound of personal belief and not the speechwriter’s soothing skill: “We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around.” “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.” This inaugural overflowed with such sentiments.
It is simply not possible to grasp the threat these words posed to modern liberalism unless one has some understanding of liberalism’s own conclusions back then about its place in the moral history of this country.
Ronald Reagan was explicit in saying that his target was not the idea of government itself, as was often wrongly believed, but the Great Society. The Great Society was, and remains, a remarkable edifice. Consider the times in which it came to life. John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and the liberal promise he embodied erupted into a moral crusade, whose general was Lyndon Baines Johnson. Besides the burden of expectation left by a murdered and sanctified president, LBJ inherited two of the nation’s most traumatic political crucibles–the aborning civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. For liberals then and now, the former was the most morally compelling experience of their lives; the latter, the most immoral.
It is difficult to convey now the day-to-day excitement that infused Washington in those years, as young liberals arrived to build new agencies such as the Office of Economic Opportunity. Ralph Nader was one of them. The Beltway of fat-cat lobbyists and Gucci Gulch came later, but for awhile, there was no corner of American life that was able to hide from the moral certainty of the best and bright Democrats gathering in Washington.
The fervor with which LBJ’s speeches describe the Great Society’s legislative crusade matched and even exceeded Ronald Reagan’s. His 1964 State of the Union Speech was astonishing in its list of “we must” goals: “All this and more can and must be done.” He committed the government to “unconditional war on poverty.” The next year he was giving speeches on the signing of historic bills for civil rights, Medicare, education, even highway beautification, which seeded the environmental movement. On signing the 1965 education bill in Johnson City, Texas, LBJ remarked, “My minister assured me that the Lord’s day will not be violated by making into law a measure which will bring mental and moral benefits to millions of our young people.” Yes, moral benefits.
The ethos of Ronald Reagan and LBJ represent the two great political ideologies of our lifetime. The substantive disagreements that put these factions in opposition is not that of the mundane contests between Ford and Carter or Clinton and Dole. It was more like a religious war and remains so to this day.
On hearing the Reagan inaugural in January 1981–a radical’s blunt challenge to establishment Washington orthodoxy–the liberals mounted a counteroffensive. To any who were there, the first Reagan term was bloody.
The Democrats’ most potent weapon was the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. If shown to be “unethical,” the old church’s fathers reasoned, Reaganism’s moral standing would fall. Among the first over the side was the president’s national security adviser, Richard Allen. Special prosecutors sprouted, taking down Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who famously asked where he had to go to get his reputation back. The “sleaze factor” was born. National Journal counted 38 Reagan officials tangled in such controversy; the Democrats said it was closer to 100.
The air burned with political antipathy. I recall in 1985 attending a confirmation hearing (another heavy weapon) for Edwin Meese to be attorney general. The confirmation was a long ordeal whose details are forgotten. But on this day Sen. Joe Biden ended a long, dramatic denunciation of Mr. Meese by intoning, twice, that the nominee was “beneath contempt.” There was a sound in the silent room. It was Mr. Meese’s wife seated behind him, sobbing violently. The Bork confirmation, this war’s most famous assassination, was two years away.
Did Ronald Reagan succeed? He had more measurable success against the Soviet Union. It’s gone. Much of the Great Society endures, no longer exciting the brilliant young, and smoking with inefficiencies. But the basic tenet of Reaganism, “the individual genius of man,” now has a moral claim in our politics at least equal to the Democrats’ distributive justice. The Reagan wars persist in our time because his professed heir, George W. Bush, also cut taxes. Tax revenue is the holy water of liberalism–what they use, they believe, to work social miracles. Ronald Reagan said individuals are the source of miracles, not the government. Those were fighting words. Ronald Reagan departs, a victor.