Reagan Revolution Plus 25

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.

As November turned to December in Washington 25 years ago, the officers and soldiers of the Reagan Revolution were taking their first orders from their president-elect as they prepared to occupy this enemy city.

Time flies. But to a large degree, the conservative conquest that began in November 1980 continues, as a president who resembles Ronald Reagan in so many ways – in both style and substance – struggles to govern in his second term.

Since 1980, no Democrat has won 50 percent of the popular vote in a presidential election.

Republicans seized the House of Representatives after six decades of nearly uninterrupted Democratic control. Republicans have run the Senate for 15 of the past 25 years. Those seem like adequate credentials for this the last quarter century to be dubbed a "conservative Republican era." Consider it dubbed.

On December 1, 1980, Washington was in what we might now call "shock and awe" over Reagan's triumph.

He'd just captured 91 percent of the electoral vote and had become the first Republican to oust an incumbent Democrat since Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in 1888. He also broke two decades of Democratic control of the Senate. And now the man who said government was the problem was forming a government.

On November 15, Reagan announced his chief of staff would be a guy from Texas named James A. Baker III. On December 11, he announced his first Cabinet choices: Donald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, William French Smith, Malcolm Baldridge, Richard Schweiker and Drew Lewis.

The Washington Post noted, "Together they are a mainstream Republican group, a Cabinet nucleus that will not alarm liberal GOP members although it may somewhat disappoint extreme conservatives who hope that a Reagan presidency will be strikingly different from previous Republican administrations."

Some phrases from that quote might seem quaint and even funny these days.

"Liberal GOP members"? Was there truly such a beast? Well, there used to be: Lowell Weicker, Charles Mathias, William Cohen and John Heinz were in the Senate Republican caucus at the time. Jacob Javits, their dean, had just lost his seat.

How about the "extreme conservatives"? Who were they? Basically,
they were what we now call simply "Republicans."

The entire ideological spectrum of the country has taken five giant steps to the right since the Reagan cabinet was formed. Today, liberal Republicans are as extinct as the Yellow Dog Democrats (Southerners who, carrying forward a Civil War era distrust of Republicans, voted Democratic even when they didn't like the candidate).

In 1980, the establishment spa for GOP big ideas was the American Enterprise Institute and a place called the Heritage Foundation was a fringe breeding ground for "extreme conservatives." In 2005, AEI looks almost liberal - and fringy - and the Heritage Institute is the establishment.

In 1980, the letters "ACLU" were not yet a below-the-belt political insult. A place you've never heard of, the Institute for Policy Studies, was a chic leftie think tank that supplied the press with quotes and studies.

The issues we worry about have changed, but not radically. Crime, poverty and welfare were important in the 1980 elections and they weren't in 2000. Terrorism has replaced Soviet communism as the organizing enemy of foreign policy. The parties are having all the same fights about tax cuts, deficits and economic growth. Moral values have replaced family values.

Throughout these 25 years, the Republican Party has remained divided and contentious. The names of the factions have changed. In 1980, liberal Republicans battled movement conservatives, country club Republicans looked down on the born-agains, and budget balancers fought the "voodoo economics" of the supply-siders.

Today's GOP tent is filled with the louder than ever sound and fury of party evangelicals fighting the secular wing, isolationists sparring with interventionist neo-conservatives, and hapless fiscal conservatives - still fighting, this time flailing against Bush's big spending and deficits.

The small government crowd has been waiting a long time for Reaganism to get real.

By mixing tax cuts and then tax hikes with huge increases in defense spending, Reagan created budget deficits that did starve domestic programs. But Reagan, for example, wanted to get rid of the Department of Education; George W. has empowered it - in the name of No Child Left Behind.

The Department of Homeland Security is the biggest new government organization in a generation. Medicare's coverage of prescription drugs is the biggest expansion of a government program in a generation. And Bush can put his deficits on the scale against Reagan's any day. That's Big Government.

In the 25 years since Reagan began forming his government, this also hasn't changed: the social conservatives, the family values people, the evangelicals who saw Reagan and then Bush the Younger as their great hopes have received adoring attention from Republican campaigns but not from Republican administrations and Congresses.

Abortion rights are more secure than they were in 1980. Prayer in school is still not allowed and music lyrics are still raunchy. There's been plenty of lip service and virtually no legislation.

Also constant: liberal, bi-coastal, urban upper-income Chicken Little-ism – the fear that conservative Neanderthals are at the gate, about to snatch away their liberties and lifestyles as they build a theocracy.

This view of their opposition has not served the Democrats well. They did manage to install Bill Clinton in the White House for eight years. He did as much for liberals as the conservative Republican presidents of this era did for "extreme conservatives." His political legacy was to give the Republicans the House for the first extended period in generations and then the White House.

Some believe that the conservative Republican era is turning sour at the 25-year mark – just as power-drunk, corrupt and arrogant as the Democrats in Congress eventually became. For evidence they point to the indictment of Tom Delay, the Scanlon-Abramoff scandals, Duke Cunningham, and Bill Frist's so-called issues. I don't believe these assorted scandals and non-scandals tell us anything important about the course of political cycles.

The last great cycle, of course, was the New Deal-Great Society period of 1932 to 1968, interrupted also by a two-term president from the other party who had some success but little legacy. But the legacy of that long Democratic era was great and has endured in the programs and institutions it created.

It's impossible to know if the era that began in this season 25 years ago has any legs left. You can't read much long-term meaning into President Bush's current troubles because all the presidents elected since Eisenhower have had terrible second terms (one six-year term, anyone?). And there are no clear signs that the Democrats are onto anything new and big.

What can be said is that at this point, the conservative Republican era doesn't have much to show for itself.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer