Bruce J. Schulman: The Reagan Revolution: It's Alive!





[Bruce J Schulman, the William E. Huntington professor at Boston University, is the co-editor of “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.”]

A year ago, the 30-year conservative ascendancy in American politics seemed to have run its course. Barack Obama entered the White House with a larger share of the popular vote than any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson’s liberal landslide in 1964. With huge majorities in both houses, including a supposedly “filibuster-proof” 60 votes in the Senate, and an epoch-changing economic crisis, an era in American public life appeared to end....

After a year of hard slogging, yesterday’s special election in Massachusetts made clear that reports of the demise of the Reagan Revolution were premature.

Obama’s first year as president has not only dramatized the potent institutional constraints that the U.S. government places on any would-be transformational leader—first among them the Senate, whose arcane rules guarantee disproportionate power to states with more cattle than people. A fact that explains why the United States possesses the best system of grazing subsidies in the industrialized world and the worst national health insurance....

Despite populist outrage over corporate bonuses, neither political party showed any real zest to impose substantial new regulation on the financial sector. Opting for stability over reform, Obama reappointed Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke; his other key economic policy advisers, Clinton administration veterans Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, shared the former president’s embrace of a Third Way that relied on market mechanisms, rather than government action, to address the nation’s problems. Obama himself, even as he pushed a massive short-term stimulus bill, spoke early and often about deficit control....

For Reagan’s election in 1980 marked an arrival as much as a departure--the culmination of a generation-long conservative mobilization that took the right from the political wilderness in the 1950s and 1960s through a period of heady grassroots organizing in the 1970s. Reagan’s triumph owed much to the right’s persistent efforts to proselytize its ideals, pioneer new political tactics and build potent organizations....

Despite hoopla about the “Netroots” and the excitement that Obama’s historic candidacy generated in 2008, no such grassroots movement had prepared the way for a liberal reconstruction of U.S. public life.

Even with that kind of foundation, Reagan’s achievements were piecemeal and hard-bought. Obama’s road is tougher and he cannot escape the shadow of Reagan’s handiwork.



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