The Age of Reagan

How Reagan's Pragmatism Got Lost
New books dissected over email.
June 2 2008 2:20 PM

The Age of Reagan

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Dear Tim,

Many thanks for your generous words about The Age of Reagan. I'll plunge right in and respond to the astute points you raise. I think that Bob Dole was only half-correct when, in eulogizing Reagan, he called all the Republicans who followed him "Reagan's children." Reagan certainly moved the political center of gravity inside the GOP, and the country at large, well to the right. But after 1988, for complicated reasons, which I try to explain in the book, much of the conservative Republican leadership lost touch with the pragmatism as well as the calming confidence that made Reagan a successful politician and, in many ways, an effective president.

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I hope that no reader finishes my book with the impression that Reagan was a great humanitarian on the domestic front. Although not the moral monster that his liberal critics claimed he was, Reagan was captivated by simplistic right-wing doctrine about the evils of New Deal liberalism. He did his utmost to roll back what he considered destructive, "bleeding heart" reformism, as embodied in the progressive federal tax system.

Reagan could be callous and demagogic when it suited his political purposes, as when he mocked welfare recipients in order to attack the existing welfare system. His signal domestic success, beating back inflation, came only after he allowed the country to suffer through a severe recession. Add in the disasters of his deregulation policies, the debilitating wasteful deficits, the rampant corruption—the worst of any postwar administration other than Nixon's—and the widening economic inequality his programs produced, and Reagan's domestic record looks pretty terrible.

That said, it is important to remember that Reagan was also a pragmatist who knew when to give way as circumstances dictated. Pushed by congressional leaders from both parties as well as by elements within his administration, he actually increased taxes repeatedly (although, pointedly, not top marginal income-tax rates). He always paid lip service to the culture warriors and the right-wing evangelicals and Catholics, but he knew when to remain circumspect on issues such as abortion rights, where public opinion was generally liberal.

These are not qualities I associate with the George W. Bush administration—and I don't think the difference is chiefly because of which party controlled Congress. Remember, the Republicans controlled the Senate for the first six years of Reagan's presidency, and "boll weevil" Democrats in the House gave Reagan political leverage on key issues. It was not for nothing that Tip O'Neill openly admitted to a reporter in 1981 that "I'm getting the shit whaled out of me."

The current administration has been much more fervent and even radical. It has politicized the federal bureaucracy and turned it into a nest of incompetence and cronyism beyond anything Reagan would have countenanced, let alone encouraged. It has openly, even brazenly run roughshod over constitutional restraints on the executive branch that Reagan generally assayed more cautiously and in private (and for which he paid a heavy price during the Iran-contra affair). It is hard to imagine Reagan—who boasted of the invasion of tiny Grenada as a major military triumph and who was content to cut and run from Lebanon—leading the country into the current Iraq disaster. Even after the Democratic resurgence in 2006, the second Bush administration has shown no sign (forced resignations aside) that it has been chastened.

But this leads me to a paradox regarding the questions you raise at the end. Polls repeatedly showed that Reagan was always more popular among the voters than his policies were. Although more conservative than in, say, 1964, the electorate never underwent a massive ideological conversion in the 1980s, as right-wing publicists claimed it did. The age of Reagan arose as much from the feebleness and divisions that afflicted the Democratic Party as it did from affection for conservative dogma.

Nevertheless, the Bush administration's failures have, I think, finally delegitimized bulwarks of right-wing Republicanism who, as recently as 2004, looked to many joyful conservatives as if they would command American politics for a least a generation to come. As I suggest in the book, the divisions among Democrats that helped usher in the Reagan era have persisted and may lead them to squander the opportunity of a political lifetime. What are your thoughts about this—and the fate of Reaganism?

My best,
Sean

Sean Wilentz is a professor of history and director of the program in American studies at Princeton University.