The Reagan Revolution - Not

I recently read the transcript of a lecture by Stephen F. Hadley delivered on April 13th in the Bradley lecture series, and it moved me to write this diary, and how I view what Mr Hadley said applies to the April 15th Tea Party events. One of the main premises in his speech is that President Reagan was not calling for a Revolution, but instead he was calling for a Restoration of constitutional government as the Founders intended it to be.

It is necessary first to understand the unity of Reagan’s statecraft, and second, to note the way in which Reagan perceived his statecraft in constitutional terms. Understanding the unity of Reagan’s domestic and foreign statecraft is not easy, partly because telling the story of Reagan’s domestic record is much more complicated. It lacks the personal drama of the Cold War against the Evil Empire. Reagan never stood in front of the Federal Trade Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency and said, “Mr. Regulator–tear down this rule!”

But this distinction between Reagan’s presidential performance in domestic policy and in foreign policy is fundamentally unsound: his statecraft needs to be seen as a unity for one crucial reason: he saw it as a unity. Lincoln once wrote that all nations have a central idea, from which all its minor thoughts radiate. The same can be said of leading statesmen. Reagan’s central idea can be summarized as the view that unlimited government is inimical to liberty, both in its vicious forms such as Communism or socialism, but also in its supposedly benign forms, such as bureaucracy.

President Reagan in his own words:

There is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state. History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches–political control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless bureaucracy all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal freedom. Now, I’m aware that among us here and throughout Europe there is legitimate disagreement over the extent to which the public sector should play a role in a nation’s economy and life. I know you’re not all as freedom-loving as me and Margaret Thatcher–but on one point all of us are united: our abhorrence of dictatorship in all its forms.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. . .It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.

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. . . Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.

From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

What others have said about President Ronald Reagan

Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich:

Ronald Reagan is the only coherent revolutionary in an administration of accommodationist advisers. The problem was that Reagan’s people were so excited by victory, they forgot they didn’t control the country. They didn’t control the House and they didn’t really control the Senate. They didn’t in fact have real power, but psychologically they acted as if they did.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels –

The Reagan years will be for conservatives what the Kennedy years remain for liberals: the reference point, the breakthrough experience–a conservative Camelot. At the same time, no lesson is plainer than that the damage of decades cannot be repaired in any one administration.

conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. –

The most powerful man in the world is not powerful enough to do everything that needs to be done.

Gary McDowell, one of Ed Meese’s Justice Department aides who worked on the original intent portfolio –

Domestically Ronald Reagan did far less than he had hoped, he did far less than he had promised, less than people wanted–and a hell of a lot more than people thought he would.

liberal intellectual Robert Maynard Hutchins –

The notion that the sole concern of a free society is the limitation of governmental authority and that that government is best which governs least is certainly archaic. Our object today should not be to weaken government in competition with other centers of power, but rather to strengthen it as the agency charged with the responsibility for the common good.

While this is not revolutionary, it is controversial, as it challenges the basic premises of the modern, centralized administrative state. Unlike Hutchins and other liberals, Reagan didn’t think Jefferson’s philosophy was archaic. Reagan remains the beau-ideal of a modern conservative statesman, whose skills and insights are worthy of the closest study and emulation.

Keep in mind that had it been within the power of the GOP establishment in 1980, the party’s presidential nomination would surely have gone to Gerald Ford, George Bush, Howard Baker, Bob Dole, or John Connally before Reagan. Having been in the minority for so long, many Washington Republicans had come to absorb the premises of establishment liberalism, preferring to offer a low-budget version of the Democratic platform.

So the picture is decidedly mixed: Reagan transformed the Republican Party into a party much more in his own image, just as FDR did with the Democrats in the New Deal transformation. He successfully curbed some of the excesses of liberalism, though he did not turn back liberalism itself. The inexorable logic of modern American government is to expand by degrees–the intended legacy of the Progressive and New Deal transformations, which were constitutional in purpose and effect.

Why didn’t Reagan succeed more in reducing the size and influence of the federal government in domestic affairs? Reagan was more successful rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire chiefly because this is a harder problem.

Reagan was the first president since FDR who spoke frequently and substantively about the Founders and the Constitution. This is a remarkable and telling fact. It is largely overlooked today that FDR spoke often about the Founding and the Constitution, but quite differently than Woodrow Wilson did. While Wilson was openly critical of the Founding, FDR’s references to the Founding were mischievous–appearing to be defending or proposing a restoration of the principles of the Founding while in fact attempting a wholesale modification of the meaning of our constitutional order. After FDR, our presidents practically ceased making reference to the Founding or the Constitution–until Reagan arrived.

So, did Reagan succeed in curbing the size and reach of the federal government? Measuring in terms of spending, the answer appears to be No, at least if a permanent reduction in the growth of federal spending or the size of the federal bureaucracy are used as the main metrics. Although Reagan had some effect in restraining the growth of government spending below what it would have been under a second term of Jimmy Carter (indeed, far below what Carter’s last five-year budget plan had projected), over the long run the Reagan years appear to have been a small speedbump on the road to serfdom. Between 1981 and 2006, inflation-adjusted federal spending grew 84 percent, while population grew only 30 percent. If per capita spending had grown only at the rate of inflation, federal outlays in 2006 would have been $800 billion lower than they were–under, remember, a Republican president and Republican Congress.

I think there is a concerted deliberate effort to incorrectly frame the narrative of the purpose and motives of the Tea Party events. The narrative they are creating is that these Tea Party events are just a bunch of far right wing extremists who want to overthrow the government and descend into anarchy. They are saying this is just a bunch of Archie Bunker NASCAR fan rubes who are too stupid to realize that they are not currently paying more in taxes. They are saying that this is a GOP operation that some right wing extremists personalities from Fox and conservative talk radio created, and none of this was going on over the increased spending that took place in the previous administration.

This narrative they are projecting is so ridiculously wrong that I believe it is going to backfire on them big from now through the next two election cycles. The people who attended these Tea Party events are the children of the families around this country who strongly supported President Reagan. They know about the glory of when President Reagan spoke in Berlin and the words he directed to the Soviet Premier Gorbachev, and it fills them with pride. They also sense that an equal degree of success in restoring a constitutional government as the Founders intended it to be has not yet occurred. The people who attended these Tea Party events are like an attractive available single lady who is looking for Mr. Right. I believe the Republican Party does have the best opportunity to woo this lady, but they are going to have to speak to her in terms of principled Founding Father values and not in terms of political obfuscations that try to defend the indefensible spending sprees and binges that the elected Republicans exhibited.