Reagan Revolution Plus 25

Dedication ceremony for the Ronald Reagan commemorative postage stamp, Washington, DC, 2-9-05
AP (file)
This commentary was written by'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.