Presidency reshaped U.S. political landscape
By Ronald Brownstein
Los Angeles Times
No one since Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped American politics or restored the primacy of the presidency more than Ronald Reagan.
President Reagan accepts a heavy round of applause from lawmakers at a joint session of Congress that he addressed in April 1981.
As the "Great Communicator," Reagan changed the way presidents pursue their goals, drastically elevating the role of direct communication with the public through television. He hastened the realignment of the South from solidly Democratic to the cornerstone of GOP strength. And he crystallized an anti-government populism that has lastingly constrained Washington's role in society.
During the "New Deal" period ushered in by Roosevelt, "the burden of proof was on those who tried to argue that government should not act," said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Galston. "But in the era of Reagan, which I think we are still in, the burden on proof is on those who think the government should act. And if you bear the burden of proof, you have the problem."
Following a series of presidents who failed in one way or another Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Reagan at the most fundamental level demonstrated that the Oval Office was a lever from which a talented leader could change the country and the world.
After more than a decade of traumas at home and abroad from Vietnam and Watergate to gasoline shortages and inflation he showed that a president could achieve many of his goals, maintain public support and prosper politically.
Reagan left the GOP liabilities as well as assets. His unwillingness or inability to cut overall spending while massively reducing taxes triggered huge federal deficits.
His identification with those who sought to ban abortion or revive prayer in schools strengthened the GOP in socially conservative regions, especially the South. But it also left an opening with socially moderate voters that Bill Clinton later exploited to realign many affluent suburbs outside the South toward the Democrats.
Reagan thus sharpened the jagged cultural divisions that have produced a nation divided almost exactly in half between the two parties.
A former Democrat, Reagan exploded onto the national political stage with a 1964 speech touting the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater's campaign marked a watershed in the evolution of conservatism. But Reagan ultimately proved far more influential in defining the movement.
Reagan could be a bruising political adversary: As governor of California, he engaged in fierce battles with student protesters and other elements of the left. But by the time he reached the White House after defeating Carter in 1980, he had perfected a sunny, optimistic version of conservatism that celebrated America as a "shining city on a hill," yet did not seem fixated on attempting to recreate bygone days.
Four former presidents posed with President George H.W. Bush at the dedication for the Reagan Presidential Library in 1991. From left: Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.
Guided by such principles, Reagan, laid in the central pillars of the Republican Party's current agenda: social conservatism; opposition to taxes; support for high levels of military spending and an anti-government populism echoing the famous declaration in his first inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Reagan's deeds didn't always match his words. After the sweeping tax cuts he pushed into law his first year in office, he was much more cautious about pursuing spending cuts after the GOP suffered sharp losses in 1982 congressional races. Although he restrained the growth in discretionary domestic programs, total federal spending rose more than twice as fast during his two terms as during Clinton's.
And throughout the Reagan years, many conservatives groused that he paid only lip services to social issues such as banning abortion; of his three appointments to the Supreme Court, two voted to affirm the legal right to abortion. For all his tough talk on welfare, Reagan never proposed rolling back the right to benefits to the degree Clinton did in the mid-1990s.
Yet those compromises like his blending of traditional moral rhetoric with forward-looking optimism may have helped Reagan expand his audience far beyond traditional Republican circles.
"Whether it is the autoworkers in the Detroit suburbs or the small-business men and women throughout the Midwest, Reagan made a cultural change in the party where average people felt comfortable calling themselves Republicans," said Gary Bauer, who served as Reagan's domestic policy adviser during his second term.
But Reagan exerted his most enduring electoral impact in the South. The virtually monolithic support that Democrats had enjoyed in that region for a century after the Civil War had begun to crack in the 1960s, in the white backlash against the passage of the civil rights and voting rights legislation. Reagan accelerated the movement toward the GOP: When he left office, the percentage of white Southerners who identified themselves as Republicans had doubled in just eight years.
Both the Republican majority in the House and Senate, as well as George W. Bush's razor-thin Electoral College majority in 2000, rests on the party's dominance in the South, an advantage bequeathed to them largely by Reagan.
At the same time, Reagan inspired thousands of young conservatives who have come to dominate every aspect of the Republican Party, from its elected officials to its executive-branch appointees and political strategists. Almost everything about George W. Bush's presidency from its focus on tax cuts to its moral certitude reflects Reagan's imprint more than that of Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
This may be the most telling measure of Reagan's impact. He shook the political landscape so powerfully that he became one of the few who profoundly influenced both parties, forcing Democrats toward the center while tilting Republicans toward the right.
Long after he returned to California, Reagan shaped the choices that his successors could pursue. He does so even today.