Years - Lee Edwards
Ronald Reagan came to the presidency with several important political advantages. He had an express mandate from the American people who knew what he intended to do -- cut income taxes from top to bottom, reduce the size of the federal government for the first time since the New Deal, and make the U.S. military Number One in the world. To help him in this revolutionary task, he had a Republican Senate and a feisty Republican minority in the House determined to avoid legislative gridlock.
And he had something else, something that neither Robert Taft nor Barry Goldwater could have counted on if either of them had been elected president -- a vital, committed conservative movement. Reagan could turn to the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and other think tanks for ideas.
He could call on groups like the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, the American Conservative Union, the National Rifle Association and the National Tax Limitation Committee for political muscle.
He could staff his administration with professionals who had gotten their start in the movement. In the White House alone, there were conservatives Ed Meese, Richard V. Allen, Martin Anderson, Robert Carleson, Lyn Nofziger, Tony Dolan, and Kenneth Cribb, all in senior positions. And he could draw on the neoconservatives for respected foreign policy experts such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, Max Kampelman, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman, and Elliott Abrams.
Outside his administration, Reagan could depend on the support of opinion molders like columnists George Will, Patrick J. Buchanan, William F. Buckley, Jr., James J. Kilpatrick, and John Chamberlain. Will and Buchanan would become major television commentators before the end of the decade; Buckley, it seemed, had always been a major TV presence. Reagan could rely for guidance on the analytical skills of the editors and writers of a wide range of journals like National Review, Human Events, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Public Interest, The National Interest, and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
And thanks to direct mail, there was sufficient money to fund the activities of the conservative movement -- and those of the Republican party, especially when Reagan signed the letter.
Reagan needed every bit of this help. Internally, the nation faced a multitude of serious economic problems -- double-digit inflation, high unemployment and a prime interest rate of 21.5 percent, the highest since the Civil War. Overseas problems had also proliferated -- the energy crisis, the red-tinged Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the unbalanced SALT II treaty, the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, falling dominos in Africa, the American hostages in Iran. The Vietnam syndrome that permeated and obstructed U.S. foreign policy was reinforced by Carter's maladroit actions and the malaise that he, not the American people, produced.
The new president and his top advisers were well aware that they had to act, and quickly. In presidential politics, as in the 100-yard dash, a quick start is everything.
Richard Wirthlin, the president's pollster, had developed "a strategic outline of initial actions" to be taken during the administration's first 180 days -- from the inauguration until early August, when Congress usually recessed for a summer vacation.[i] The plan was based in large part on an address that Reagan had delivered the previous September before the International Business Council of Chicago. The candidate had proposed: strictly controlling the rate of growth of government spending, reducing personal income tax rates, revising government regulations, establishing a stable monetary policy, and following a consistent national economic policy.
Such a strategy seems obvious, but Democrats attacked it with abandon and, typically, big business mouthpieces like the National Association of Manufacturers complained because the plan didn't cut business taxes enough. But research director Martin Anderson and the other numbers crunchers were content: they had produced a document (with projections through 1985) showing that Reagan could cut taxes, balance the budget and increase domestic growth if given the right kind of cooperation by Congress.[ii] The Wall Street Journal agreed, commenting that Reagan had "spelled out a prudent, gradual, responsible reordering of economic priorities."[iii]
The first and most decisive step was tax reform. The top marginal rate on individual income was 70 percent, and Reagan, who had majored in economics in college and had read extensively in the field during the 1950s and 1960s, concluded that if you reduced tax rates and allowed people to spend or save more of what they earned, "they'll be more industrious, they'll have more incentive to work hard, and money they earn will add fuel to the great economic machine that energizes our national progress." Some economists called this approach supply-side economics; "I call it common sense," Reagan wrote in his 1990 autobiography.[iv]
As early as 1964 in his famous television speech for Barry Goldwater, Reagan had sharply criticized the high taxes and large subsidies demanded by America's welfare state and warned, "No nation in history has ever survived a tax burden that reached one-third of its national income." As governor of California, he had striven to reduce taxes, even sponsoring a tax limitation amendment to the state constitution which had been narrowly defeated. Reagan was a supply-sider, wrote Ed Meese, his long-time colleague, "long before the term was invented."[v]
The conviction "that the size of the economic pie must be increased, not simply sliced differently" was fundamental to supply-siders. For Jack Kemp and others, this was a far more appealing message than the "balance the budget" imperative usually associated with Republicans. The "bibles" of this new economic gospel were Jude Wanniski's The Way the World Works, published in 1978, and George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, published in 1981. It had first been proposed legislatively in 1977 by Kemp and Senator William Roth of Delaware with their 30 percent tax cut. But supply-side economics was far more than tax cuts -- it envisioned a world "stripped of the tax preferences, subsidies and economic regulations" that were "strangling" the economy.[vi]
It would take fireside chats with the American people, deals with boll-weevil Democrats in the House of Representatives, pep talks with discouraged aides, and even near death from an attempted assassination, but on August 17, 1981, President Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Act (ERTA) into law. It was the tax reform Reagan had been urging for decades. Newsweek called it a "second New Deal potentially as profound in its import as the first was a half century ago."[vii]
The measure cut all income tax rates by twenty-five percent, with a 5 percent cut coming that October, the next 10 percent in July 1982, and the final 10 percent in July 1983. The law also reduced the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 50 percent, indexed tax rates to offset the impact of inflation, and increased the tax exemption on estates and gifts. Conservatives have consistently argued that ERTA was a prime factor in the economic growth that prevailed throughout the 1980s.
There followed sixty straight months of economic growth, the longest uninterrupted period of expansion since the government began keeping such statistics in 1854. Nearly fifteen million new jobs were created -- a total of eighteen million by the time Reagan left office. Just under $20 trillion worth of goods and services, measured in actual dollars, were produced from 1982 to 1987. To give some notion of how much that is, by the end of 1987 America was producing about seven and a one-half times more every year than it produced in John Kennedy's last year as president.[viii]
The expansion was felt everywhere, as conservative economists had predicted, including in the government's own income. Total federal receipts in 1982 were $618 billion. Five years later, federal receipts were just over $1 trillion, an increase of $398 billion. More than enough, one would have thought, to satisfy all but the most eager advocate of the welfare state.
And as Reagan had promised, the military benefited the most from the economic growth. In President Carter's last budget, America spent just under $160 billion on national defense. In 1987, the Reagan administration spent $282 billion, more than twice as much on the military. During Reagan's first seven years, he was able to expend over $1.5 trillion on national defense, "a staggering amount by anyone's standards."[ix]
Though Reagan promised deep cuts in domestic spending, that did not turn out to be the case. Indeed, overall welfare spending increased during the Reagan presidency -- primarily because Reagan could not overcome, even with vetoes and the bully pulpit of the White House, the spending impulses of Congress, which, after all, signed the checks. Throughout his two terms, he was confronted by Democrats still enthralled by the New Deal as well as Republicans (particularly in the Senate) still mesmerized by its political appeal.
When the administration proposed to abolish the Department of Education in 1981, Howard Baker, the first Republican Senate majority leader since 1954, actively opposed abolition.[x] Baker wanted to remain majority leader and was worried that getting rid of the department would alienate too many voters.
Reagan was not discouraged. He understood he had to proceed prudently with cuts, one billion dollars at a time -- he could not just pull the plug on the federal government. Over the past fifty years, millions of people had grown dependent upon it.
Many people remember Reagan saying in his inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem." But the new president also said:
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. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.[xi]
Here was no radical libertarian with a copy of Atlas Shrugged in his back pocket but a traditional conservative guided by the prudential arguments of The Federalist. Reagan was a modern federalist, echoing James Madison's call for a balance between the authority of the national and state governments. He also shared Madison's concern about "the abridgement of the freedom of the people" by the "gradual and silent encroachment of those in power." As he later said in his 1990 autobiography, "We had strayed a great distance from our founding fathers' vision of America."[xii]
He was determined to recapture that lost vision. As he stated in his inaugural, he would begin by seeking to "curb the size and influence of the federal establishment." Revealing his pragmatism, his immediate target was the welfare excesses of Lyndon B. Johnson, not the long-established social programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As he wrote in his diary in January 1982, "The press is trying to paint me as trying to undo the New Deal. I'm trying to undo the Great Society."[xiii]
It was a slow uneven process, always made more difficult by a Democratic House of Representatives. He was obliged to allow federal spending for welfare -- work programs, education and training, social services, medicine, food and housing -- to rise sharply; expenditures almost doubled from $106.1 billion (in real or nominal dollars) in 1980 to $173 billion in 1988.[xiv] Nor did Reagan's own cabinet secretaries protest when the increases benefited their agency or department.
Conservative critics like the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler did not try to hide their disappointment and frustration. Six years into the Reagan presidency, Butler wrote that "the basic structure of the Great Society is still firmly intact .... virtually no program has been eliminated."[xv]
But Reagan reduced federal outlays in some welfare areas -- such as regional development, commerce and housing credit -- from $63 billion in 1980 to just over $49 billion in 1987, a decrease of about 22 percent. And the size of the federal civilian work force declined by about five percent, much of it traceable to conservatives like Gerald Carmen at GSA, Raymond Donovan at Labor and the OPM's Donald Devine, described by the Washington Post as "Reagan's terrible swift sword of the civil service."[xvi] The agencies that led the personnel downsizing were Education, down twenty-four percent; Housing and Urban Development, down twenty-two percent; Office of Personnel Management, down nineteen percent; and Government Services Administration and Labor, both down fifteen percent.
Five principles guided the Reagan budget cuts: The growth of government should be curbed; federal benefits should be focused primarily on the poor; benefits should be contingent on an individuals effort to leave welfare; decisions on social programs should be returned to the states and localities; and finally, programs that don't work should be eliminated. At the heart of all these principles was a simple proposition: entitlements as the "underlying principle of American social policy" should be replaced by "benefits contingent on responsible behavior."[xvii]
But in practice these principles were sometimes shunted aside -- as in the case of the politically popular Medicare program. The "most serious policy error of the Reagan administration," conservative analyst Ronald F. Docksai asserted, was its support for the expansion of Medicare to provide catastrophic acute care protection for the elderly. Reagan believed, correctly, that senior citizens should not be impoverished by a serious or persistent illness. But instead of seeking legislation to give private insurance companies an incentive to offer catastrophic hospital and long-term care insurance, the president was "persuaded by administration officials and Republican lawmakers" to endorse an expansion of Medicare and the federal government. Conservative congressmen who favored a private-sector approach to provide quality care and constrain federal spending were undercut by the White House and labeled "anti-elderly" by liberal Democrats.[xviii]
Reagan's personal feelings about Social Security had not changed since his 1964 televised address for Barry Goldwater when he had suggested the introduction of "voluntary features" into the system so that "those who can make better provisions for themselves" be allowed to do so.[xix] But he had come to accept, reluctantly, that Social Security was an issue that Republicans could not touch without getting badly burned. Two months into his presidency, biographer Lou Cannon wrote, the White House was given a congressional initiative that would have sharply slowed the growth of Social Security and reduced the budget deficit. The device was a freeze or severe reduction in automatic cost-of-living allowances (COLAs), which had increased Social Security payments so much that the program now accounted for 21 percent of the total budget.
Reagan was tempted, but as he told Senator Peter Domenici of New Mexico, the author of the amendment and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, "I made a commitment during the campaign not to cut Social Security, and ... I don't want to go back on my word."[xx] Other senators, including John Tower and William Armstrong of Colorado, endorsed Domenici's approach, but Reagan would not be moved. And regardless of the modest bipartisan support in the Senate, liberal House Democrats would have relished an opportunity to charge that Republicans were once again trying to reduce the size of the monthly Social Security checks on which millions of senior Americans depended.
There is no denying that American indebtedness increased significantly during the Reagan years. Reagan borrowed $1 for every $5 he spent, increasing the national debt by $1.5 trillion through 1988. He didn't have to worry too much about where to get the money -- America was still such a good credit risk that people around the world "pressed money on us, and we obliged, borrowing easily, quickly, and almost guiltlessly," in Cannon's words, [xxi] But Reagan did feel guilty about the accumulated debt or as much as anyone with his unassailable optimism could feel guilty. He admitted that his failures to cut federal spending absolutely and to balance the federal budget were his "biggest disappointments" as president.[xxii]
But it is a little-remembered fact, as Cato Institute economist Stephen Moore has emphasized, that by the end of the Reagan era, the federal deficit as a share of gross domestic product was falling, and rapidly -- from 6 percent in 1985 to 3 percent in 1989. As Reagan left office, the Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office projected that "deficits were on a path to fall to about one percent of GDP by 1993," without any action by future presidents.[xxiii]
Reagan never ignored the deficit -- he just had more important things on his mind. As he said in 1981, "I did not come here to balance the budget -- not at the expense of my tax-cutting program and my defense program."[xxiv] Still, every budget he submitted to Congress outlined spending reductions which would have reduced the cumulative deficit during the 1980s by several hundred billion dollars. But Congress nullified this possibility with a succession of "continuing resolutions" that enabled the government to keep operating and keep spending at the same level.
The persistent deficits did, however, have an unintended impact on Congress, which for the first time in the post-war era began to "impose limits on the growth of government." Of all the measures we know, Milton Friedman wrote, "the deficit has been the only effective restraint on congressional spending."[xxv]
President Reagan devoted most of his time in the spring and early summer of 1981 (after he had recovered from the March 30th shooting by would-be assassin John Hinckley) building a consensus for his economic recovery program. Time's Lawrence Barrett described the president's strategy as initial "seduction" followed by a "blitzkreig."[xxvi] Reagan began by showing the Washington establishment that he was not a dangerous man or a "political freak." He had drinks with House Speaker Tip O'Neill, a meeting with Senator Edward Kennedy, and a chat with publisher Katharine Graham of the Washington Post. Quite a charmer, they agreed, but certainly no real threat to the way Washington works.
O'Neill was so deceived that he condescendingly offered some advice to the new fellow in town: "You were governor of a state," he told Reagan, "but a governor plays in the minor leagues. Now you're in the big leagues. Things might not move as quickly as you would like." Just eight months later, the House of Representatives passed Reagan's economic recovery plan by 238-195, with the cross-over help of forty-eight Democrats who didn't mind going against their Speaker when it was in the best interests of their constituents.
Reagan called Congress's passage of the bill "the greatest political victory in half a century." Jubilant conservatives described it as a "new economic beginning." David Broder of the Washington Post proclaimed Reagan's tax victory as "one of the most remarkable demonstrations of presidential leadership in modern history."[xxvii] The $162 billion tax cut dwarfed any previous one in the postwar period -- Ford's $22.8 billion reduction in 1975 was a distant second.
The cuts in personal income taxes "had a permanency unlike that of any [previous] tax bill" because of the indexing provision. In the past, individuals were pushed into higher tax brackets whenever their income rose along with inflation. ERTA did away with "bracket creep" and prevented political leaders from "solving" fiscal deficits by waiting for inflation to increase revenues each year. From now on, Congress had to pass and the president had to sign any tax increase out in the open. How to collect government revenues "became the dominating political issue of the 1980s."[xxviii]
"People are policy," Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation has often remarked, and nowhere was this more true than in the Reagan administration. There was a constant struggle between the Reaganauts who wanted to transform the government and the pragmatists who were content with change at the margin. Between them was the president himself, who sometimes aligned himself with the Reaganauts and sometimes with the pragmatists, instinctively seeking a golden mean between the two camps. He was willing to accept less than 100 percent if that was all he could get and if the agreement moved him toward his basic goal of minimizing government and maximizing individual freedom. As he once said of his landmark welfare reforms in California, "If I can get seventy percent of what I want from a legislature controlled by the opposition, I'll take my chances on getting the other thirty when they see how well it works."[xxix]
Sometimes Reagan went along with a pragamatist like chief of staff James Baker, who persuaded the president to accept the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 (TEFRA), which turned out to be the great tax increase of 1982 -- $98 billion over the next three years. That was too much for eighty-nine House Republicans (including second-term Congressman Newt Gingrich of Georgia) or for prominent conservative organizations from the American Conservative Union like the Conservative Caucus and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which all opposed the measure.
Baker assured his boss that Congress would approve three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increase. To Reagan, TEFRA looked like a pretty good "70 percent" deal. But Congress wound up cutting less than twenty-seven cents for every new tax dollar. What had seemed to be an acceptable 70-30 compromise turned out to be a 30-70 surrender. Ed Meese described TEFRA as "the greatest domestic error of the Reagan administration," although it did leave untouched the individual tax rate reductions approved the previous year. (TEFRA was built on a series of business and excise taxes plus the removal of business tax deductions.)[xxx]
The basic problem was that Reagan believed, as Lyn Nofziger put it, that members of Congress "wouldn't lie to him when he should have known better."[xxxi] As a result of TEFRA, Reagan learned to "trust but verify," whether he was dealing with a Speaker of the House or a president of the Soviet Union.
Sometimes the president sided with reformers as when, after a year of hard work, he signed the Tax Reform Act of 1986 into law. In his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan had signaled his intention "to simplify the tax code so all taxpayers would be treated more fairly."[xxxii] An unusual coalition formed around the president's initiative, including Democrats Richard Gephardt and Dan Rostenkowski in the House and Budget Chairman Pete Domenici and Democrat Bill Bradley in the Senate. A bipartisan deal was ultimately struck with Reagan agreeing to close existing tax loopholes if the Democrats would agree to lower marginal rates for individuals and families.
Reagan was deadly serious about the measure. In mid-December 1985, for example, he made an unusual personal visit to Capitol Hill to lobby members of Congress for his tax reform. A few days later, he telephoned House Speaker O'Neill to report that he had rounded up at least fifty Republican votes for final passage of the legislation. O'Neill had set the 50-vote requirement for bringing the bill to the floor.
Describing his plan as a "Second American Revolution," Reagan promised that it would make taxes lower, fairer, simpler, and more productive. And it did, lowering the top marginal rate from 50 percent to 33 percent, simplifying the number of tax brackets, and increasing personal deductions so much that an estimated 4.3 million low-income families were removed from the tax rolls. At the same time, a minimum tax was established to ensure that wealthy taxpayers would not escape paying at least some income tax. And hundreds of special interest provisions, such as deductible "three martini luncheons," were eliminated.
Reagan described his tax reform initiative as one of the proudest achievements of his administration. He called his tax reform act "the best anti-poverty bill, the best pro-family measure and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress of the United States."[xxxiii]
However, whichever way he tacked, Reagan often found himself being roundly criticized by leaders of the New Right, eager as always to find fault with a conservative for not being quite conservative enough. Richard Viguerie and others pointed out that regardless of Reagan's successful battles to reduce income tax rates, the average American's total tax payments had actually gone up in Reagan's second year if you included increases in Social Security withholding. As for Reagan's spending cuts, the New Rightists stressed, they were not absolute reductions but merely reductions in the rate of increase.
"We constantly hear nonsense about how conservatives are running everything," remarked Terry Dolan, head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). "If that were true, we wouldn't have the biggest budget deficits in history."[xxxiv]
Even the Heritage Foundation, as good a friend of the Reagan administration as there was in Washington, concluded after one year that although headed in the right direction, the administration "should and could have accomplished more." The foundation estimated that of two thousand recommendations made in its monumental Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration, published in late 1980 just before Reagan took office, about 1,270 suggestions -- "only" 60 percent -- had been implemented or initiated. The "only" seemed gratuitous: Even the fabled Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox would have been satisfied with a .600 batting average. But conservatives, out of power for decades, were impatient and demanding of results.
Certainly the Reagan administration achieved much in the domestic field in its first term -- reducing inflation, lowering unemployment, cutting the prime interest rate in half and producing economic growth of six percent in 1983. But it did not solve all the old problems and indeed failed to even tackle some, such as the federal deficit and intrusive federal departments like Education. After chalking up a series of impressive budget victories in their first year and maintaining the policy initiative, Reagan officials, according to Heritage's Stuart M. Butler, "appeared to lose their edge."[xxxv]
There were several reasons for the slowdown. The federal bureaucracy, protective of its power, began to dig in and practice its well-honed delaying tactics. The Democratic opposition in Congress, led by the wily House Speaker Tip O'Neill, organized more effectively. Pragmatic Reagan aides like Jim Baker kept resisting bold initiatives. And the complicated budget process (authorization, appropriation, conference committees, etc.) allowed liberal legislators to block White House proposals and whittle away at the president's early antispending victories. All the while, the mounting federal deficits made conservatives in Congress increasingly nervous.
Contrary to conservative hopes, Reagan was not able to cut overall government spending, which remained at roughly 22 percent of GNP during his eight years in office. But the change in priorities was significant, with defense spending increasing from 5 to 6.5 percent of GNP, thus enabling the president to deal with the Soviets from a position of strength. Even so, Heritage analysts Robert Rector and Michael Sanera pointed out, the Reagan buildup, measured in constant dollars, was "about half the size of Eisenhower's peacetime military increases."[xxxvi] Which suggests, ironically, that Ike himself might have been responsible, at least partially, for the creation of the "military-industrial complex" which he warned America about in his farewell address.
Still, if one examines the economic report cards of American presidents from Truman through Reagan, Reagan easily finishes first. Using the change each year in inflation, unemployment, interest rates and growth in Gross National Product, Harvard economist Robert Barro ranked Reagan number one. Among other things, Reagan engineered the largest reduction in the misery index (the total of inflation and unemployment) in history -- 50 percent. In fact, sums up economist Richard B. McKenzie, the 1980s were, up to then, "the most prosperous decade in American history."[xxxvii]
The more than 350 federal judges that Reagan appointed during his eight years in office also constitute an important legacy. He named close to half of all lower-court federal judges, more than any other president. He also elevated conservative William H. Rehnquist to Chief Justice of the United States and appointed three Associate Justices, including the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative. Almost as important as the Rehnquist nomination was that of Antonin Scalia, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge and a former scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Scalia has been unwavering in his opposition to affirmative action, abortion and what he has called the "liberal jurisprudence" that undergirded judicial activism.[xxxviii]
As Reagan stated in 1986, his goal was a federal judiciary "made up of judges who believe in law and order and a strict interpretation of the Constitution."[xxxix] The man in charge of the selection progress, Attorney General Edward Meese III, emphasized that the administration aimed "to institutionalize the Reagan revolution so it can't be set aside no matter what happens in future presidential elections."[xl]
The president persuaded the Senate to approve his judicial nominations because he was able to forge a broad coalition among traditional conservatives like Strom Thurmond, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; New Right conservatives like John East of North Carolina and Jeremiah Denton of Alabama; and moderate but law-and-order Republicans like Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. That changed abruptly when Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986 and named Joseph Biden of Delaware chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Reagan's most dramatic defeat came in 1987 when he nominated Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.[xli] Bork's confirmation became an ugly battle against liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the AFL-CIO, and People for the American Way. One analyst put the cost of the anti-Bork media campaign at $15 million.[xlii]
Although the American Bar Association rated Bork "well qualified," the ACLU called him "unfit." Senator Edward Kennedy, who led the Senate fight against the conservative jurist, charged that Bork's nomination would lead to an America where women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police would break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, school children would not be taught about evolution, writers and authors could be censored at the whim of government and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.[xliii]
Not since 1964 and LBJ's Anti-Campaign against Barry Goldwater had a conservative been subjected to so fierce and unfair an attack. The Boston Globe's Supreme Court correspondent wrote that Kennedy "shamelessly twisted Bork's world view."[xliv]
Bork's nomination dominated the political agenda in the late summer and early fall of 1987. His five days of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee were nationally televised. Former President Gerald Ford personally introduced the nominee to the committee. Former President Jimmy Carter then sent a letter stating his opposition. One hundred and ten witnesses appeared for and against Bork during two weeks of hearings. Finally, the Democrat-controlled Judiciary Committee refused by a vote of 9-5 to recommend Bork's nomination. The Senate then voted 58-42 against confirmation: six moderate Republicans broke party ranks and voted with fifty-two Democrats against Bork while two Democrats voted for Bork. Liberals loudly celebrated their victory, but soon after, Reagan nominated and won confirmation of a lower-keyed conservative, Anthony M. Kennedy.
Several factors combined to deny Robert Bork a seat on the Supreme Court: a strongly partisan Democratic Senate, a president weakened by the Iran-contra affair, a White House that did not launch its nomination campaign early enough, a liberal opposition that was better organized and financed than the conservative support, and a nominee who was often contentious and contradictory in his testimony. But ultimately Bork was rejected because of his view that the Constitution was "the Founders' Constitution" bound by original intent and not a "living document" susceptible to the interpretation of current justices.[xlv] Today, however, Bork's traditional view of the Constitution is increasingly articulated by a majority of the Supreme Court.
Although Bork's defeat was a major setback for the Reagan administration, it could not negate Reagan's significant legal legacy of a conservative federal judiciary from top to bottom. "Reagan's success lies not simply in quantity but quality," concluded conservative author Terry Eastland, who worked in the administration's Justice department. Indeed, Reagan's judges, according to biographer Lou Cannon, "ranked above [those of] Carter, Ford, Nixon and Johnson."[xlvi]
The Reagan years were paradoxical years for the conservative movement with some conservative organizations rising to new heights of influence and affluence and others fading and falling from sight. In 1974, the Heritage Foundation could fit all eight of its employees into a couple of rented offices and had a tiny budget of $250,000, almost all of it provided by one generous businessman -- Colorado brewer Joseph Coors. A decade later, Heritage had a staff of more than one hundred people -- analysts, academics, and support personnel -- and an annual operating budget of about $10.5 million based on the contributions of over 100,000 individuals, foundations, and corporations.
In contrast, several New Right groups were in near free fall. The Moral Majority was damaged by the financial misdeeds of Jim Bakker and the sexual misconduct of fellow television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart although neither was a conservative activist. Many Americans simply did not or could not distinguish between Bakker and Swaggart on the one hand and Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other ministers of the Religious Right on the other. Also, many of the Religious Right's people shifted their allegiance and financial support to conservative organizations based in Washington, D.C.[xlvii]
Despite a continuing high media profile, the National Conservative Political Action Committee was in serious financial trouble, with millions of dollars of unpaid bills. Its problems were compounded by the ill health of its articulate, aggressive chairman, Terry Dolan, who died in January 1987.
Howard Phillips found organizing at the grassroots more and more difficult. Many conservatives were convinced that with Reagan in the White House, the political war had been won. Phillips thought differently and kept searching for the right issues to motivate people, from limiting taxes to supporting freedom fighters in Angola. And he became increasingly critical of Reagan, which won him attention in the news media but earned him the enmity of the administration.
Appalled by the treaty banning medium-range missiles from Europe, Phillips scorned President Reagan as "a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda."[xlviii] The Conservative Caucus leader and similar hard-core conservatives seemed to think that arms control negotiations had only one purpose -- to prevent arms control agreements. But Reagan, as the Chicago Tribune stressed, "always said he would sign a treaty that served America's interests."[xlix] Phillips later summed up Reagan as "a superb chief of state and a deficient chief executive."[l]
Frustrated by the New Right's decline, Richard Viguerie became more sharply populist during the Reagan years, attacking Big Government, Big Labor, Big Business, and Big Media in a new book, The Establishment vs. the People. He charged that both the Democratic and Republican parties had "come to defend a privileged elite against the will and interests of the majority." He faulted President Reagan for raising taxes, hiring "5,200 additional IRS agents," and failing to veto "unnecessary" government spending. "Who will speak for the little guy?" Viguerie demanded.[li] Writing in National Review, Viguerie claimed both Thomas Jefferson and William F. Buckley Jr. as inspirations for his anti-elitism, amusing Jefferson scholars and startling the patrician Buckley.[lii]
With all his many activities and connections, Paul Weyrich should have been a contented man. He was head of Coalitions for America, which through its three divisions -- the Kingston Group, the Library Court Group, and the Stanton Group -- served as a central forum for nearly 120 different conservative organizations concerned with domestic policy and economics, pro-family issues (particularly abortion) and national defense and international affairs. A frequent participant and sometimes co-chairman in the weekly meetings of the Kingston Group was Congressman Newt Gingrich, who appreciated its political clout.
Weyrich was acknowledged by experts on the Left and the Right as one of the shrewdest politicians in Washington. An AFL-CIO publication grudgingly credited the New Right and Weyrich's Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress for "a whole passel of persons sitting in the U.S. House and Senate."[liii]
But Weyrich was concerned that conservatives were still reacting to the Left and not framing their own agenda. "We need more bills like the Family Protection Act," he said -- the omnibus bill setting forth a pro-family agenda including school vouchers and larger tax exemptions for children.[liv] Weyrich drafted the bill which was first introduced by Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, President Reagan's closest friend in the Senate.
More of a pragmatist than Howard Phillips, Weyrich believed that it was important to keep lines open to Congress and the Reagan White House. He became somewhat alarmed at the anti-Republican, populist rhetoric of his old friend and colleague, Viguerie. Certainly the New Right had demonstrated in the 1978 and 1980 congressional elections that it could defeat liberal democrats, but could it build an effective conservative coalition?
By 1986, Weyrich was promoting what he and co-author William S. Lind called "cultural conservatism," whose philosophical antecedents could be found in Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences. But Weyrich saw cultural conservatives as the forgers of a revived conservative movement that embraced "Old Right intellectuals, New Right activists, neoconservative policy analysts, and liberals concerned with civility and serious literature."[lv]
It was an ambitious concept but fated to fail because it was too ambitious -- too many philosophical and cultural questions were left dangling. Its most serious flaw was its neutrality on divine will (which offended Christian conservatives) and on natural law (which bothered many Catholics and other traditional conservatives). And without those important members of the conservative movement, cultural conservatism could have no meaningful political impact. Both Kirk and Weaver, of course, were anything but neutral about the need for a belief in God and an acknowledgement of natural law in politics.
Aside from the decline of the New Right, the 1980s were generally bountiful years for conservatives as all the elements of a successful political movement came together -- a consistent philosophy, a national constituency, requisite financing, a solid organizational base, media support, and a charismatic, principled leader.
At the center of the movement was that remarkable political fusionist Ronald Reagan, who brought in Southerners, fundamentalist-evangelical Protestants and ethnic Catholics while holding on to libertarians and Midwesterners. He did so by appealing, as he put it in his final address, to their best hopes, not their worst fears. He did so by reiterating traditional American themes of duty, honor and country. "In his evocation of our national memory and symbols of pride," said William J. Bennett, "in his summoning us to our national purpose and to national greatness, he performed the crucial task of political leadership."[lvi]
Reagan was faithful to conservative ideas at a time when Americans, at last, were ready to listen to them and act on them. He framed the debate, as analyst Peter J. Ferrara pointed out, forcing his adversaries to respond to his proposals on taxes and splending. He forced the debate "to take place on his terms and his choices" which were, wherever possible, to lower taxes, cut government programs, eliminate regulations, and reduce government handouts.[lvii]
He did not need focus groups and public polls to chart the path of his administration. He saw it as his duty to get government off the backs and out of the pockets of the people. Always, Ronald Reagan sought to restore power to the people rather than grab it for himself.
[i]. Edwin Meese III, With Reagan (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1992), p. 73.
[ii]. Martin Anderson, Revolution (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), p. 139.
[iii]. "A Modest Program," Wall Street Journal, September 22, 1980.
[iv]. Ibid., p. 232.
[v]. "A Time for Choosing," A Time for Choosing: The Speeches of Ronald Reagan 1961-1982 (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1983), pp. 41-57; Meese, p. 121.
[vi]. Lou Cannon, President Reagan, p. 236.
[vii]. "RWR's Own New Deal," Newsweek, March 2, 1981.
[viii]. Ibid., p. 176.
[ix]. Ibid., p. 177.
[x]. David Frum, Dead Right (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), p. 42.
[xi]. "President Reagan Inaugural Address," New York Times, January 21, 1981.
[xii]. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, pp. 196-197.
[xiii]. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, p. 316.
[xiv]. Peter J. Ferrara, "Welfare," Issues '94: The Candidates' Briefing Book (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1994), pp. 121-122.
[xv]. Kevin R. Hopkins, "Social Welfare Policy: A Failure of Vision," Assessing the Reagan Years, edited by David Boaz, Cato Institute, p. 211.
[xvi]. Donald Devine, Reagan's Terrible Swift Sword: An Insider's Story of Abuse and Reform within the Federal Bureaucracy (Ottawa, Il: Jameson Books, 1991), p. 1.
[xvii]. Ron Haskin and Representative Hank Brown, "A Billion Here, A Billion There,"Policy Review, Summer 1989, pp. 22-28.
[xviii]. Ronald F. Docksai, "Health," Mandate for Leadership III: Policy Strategies for the 1990s, edited by Charles L. Heatherly and Burton Yale Pines (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1989), p. 236.
[xix]. Lee Edwards: Ronald Reagan, p. 69.
[xx]. Lou Cannon, President Reagan, p. 247.
[xxi]. Ibid., p. 179.
[xxii]. Ronald Reagan, An American Life, p. 335.
[xxiii]. Stephen Moore, "Who Really Balanced the Budget?" The American Enterprise, November/December 1997, p. 52.
[xxiv]. Dinish D'Souza, Ronald Reagan: How An Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (New York: The Free Press, 1997), p. 104.
[xxv]. D'Souza, Ronald Reagan, p. 126.
[xxvi]. Laurence I. Barrett, Gambling With History: Ronald Reagan in the White House (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1983), pp. 80-93.
[xxvii]. D'Souza, Ronald Reagan, p. 89; Lee Edwards, The Power of Ideas: The Heritage Foundation at 25 Years (Ottawa, IL: Jameson Books, 1997), p. 55.
[xxviii]. Paul E. Peterson and Mark Rom, "Lower Taxes, More Spending and Budget Deficits," The Reagan Legacy: Promise and Performance, Charles O. Jones, editor (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham House Publishers, 1988), pp. 219-220.
[xxix]. Peter Hannaford, ed., Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997), p. xiii.
[xxx]. Edwin Meese III, With Reagan, p. 147.
[xxxi]. Nofgizer, p. 285.
[xxxii]. "Reagan's State of the Union Address," Reagan: The Next Four Years (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1985), p.
[xxxiii]. "Congress Enacts Sweeping Overhaul of Tax Law," 1986 CQ Almanac (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1989), p. 491.
[xxxiv]. John B. Judis, "Pop-con politics; conservatives in the GOP," The New Republic, September 3, 1984, p. 18.
[xxxv]. Stuart M. Butler, Michael Sanera, and W. Bruce Weinrod, eds., Mandate for Leadership II: Continuing the Conservative Revolution (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1984), p. 3.
[xxxvi]. Robert Rector and Michael Sanera, eds., Steering the Elephant: How Washington Works (New York: Universe Books, 1987), back cover.
[xxxvii]. Peter J. Ferrara, "What Really Happened in the 1980s?" Issues '94: The Candidates' Briefing Book (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1994), pp. 16-17; Richard B. McKenzie, What Went Right in the 1980s (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1994), p. 1.
[xxxviii]. David M. O'Brien, p. 89.
[xxxix]. David M. O'Brien, "The Reagan Judges: His Most Enduring Legacy?" The Reagan Legacy, Charles O. Jones, ed., pp. 60-61.
[xl]. Ibid., p. 62.
[xli]. Ibid., p. 74.
[xlii]. Suzanne Garment, "The War Against Robert H. Bork," Commentary, January 1988, pp. 17-26.
[xliii]."Reagan Picks Bork, Sparks Liberal Uproar," The Washington Times, July 2, 1987.
[xliv]. Lou Cannon, President Reagan, p. 807.
[xlv]. David M. O'Brien, p. 94.
[xlvi]. Lou Cannon, President Reagan, p. 802.
[xlvii]. Paul Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, Revised Edition (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993), p. 104.
[xlviii]. "Ronald Reagan, Kremlin Dupe?" Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1987.
[l]. Howard Phillips to the author, August 13, 1997.
[li]. Richard A. Viguerie, The Establishment Vs. The People: Is a New Populist Revolt on the Way? (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1983), pp. 10-11.
[lii]. Paul Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, p. 114.
[liii]. Lee Edwards, "Paul Weyrich: Conscience of New Right Fighting for Conservative Victory in '82", Conservative Digest, July 1981, p. 2.
[lv]. Paul Gottfried, The Conservative Movement, pp. 114-115.
[lvi]. William J. Bennett to the author, September 3, 1997.
[lvii]. Peter J. Ferrara, "The Politics of Substance," Issues '94, The Heritage Foundation, p. 1.