Born a few months after Reagan's inauguration, I have no personal recollection of the man, and this weekend's wall-to-wall coverage has been my first sustained exposure to his presidency. The tone of his rhetoric is striking. From his first inaugural address it seems that, initially at least, he took his role as Barry Goldwater's heir quite seriously. Government was not the solution; government was the problem. Reagan was going to get it off our backs.
Well, it didn't happen. Some budget cuts took place, to be sure, but the basic elements of the New Deal and the Great Society -- Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, Title I education funding, etc. -- all remained intact. Bush has, in many ways, simply repeated the farce of Reaganism, driving the country deep into debt by taking on the revenue side of the welfare state while leaving expenditures intact. The mode of presentation, however, has shifted altogether. While Reagan talked the talk of small government, George W. Bush preaches the gospel of compassion. To be sure, this compassion is mostly fraud, but talk matters. It seemed for a while in the nineties, with Bill Clinton conceding that the era of big government was over, that Reagan had permanently shifted the terms of the American debate to the right. The contrast between Bush and Reagan, however, makes it clear that Clinton was more successful in shifting it back than many liberals have given him credit for.
No longer do we have a president who claims that "a big businessman is what a small businessman would be if only the government would get out of the way and leave him alone." Instead -- at the level of presentation, at least -- the Bush administration accepts the fundamental liberal premises that the federal government has a responsibility for the health, education, and retirement security of the American public. Ostensibly, today's GOP is merely offering an alternative vision of how best to achieve those goals. Reality matters, of course, and the fact that Bush doesn't sincerely share those premises does make a difference. But appearance matters, too, and the difference between Bushian and Reaganite discourse amounts to a major Republican surrender on crucial issues of principle.
Reagan was supposed to be the man who saved conservatism, but instead he seems to have buried it. His tough talk against bureaucrats and welfare mothers served as group therapy for a nation burdened with resentment over the troubled '70s and the excesses of the New Left. With that angst wrung out of the body politic, we're left with the fact that Americans really do want the government to solve their problems, clean their air and water, educate their children, cure their sick, and keep them safe from terrorists and defective products alike. Unlike Reagan or Goldwater, Bush doesn't care to challenge this paradigm; instead, he works against it by stealth. Such tactics can do real harm, but liberal anger at the present administration shouldn't obscure the fact that we faced the real battle in the eighties -- and despite Walter Mondale's dismal performance, we won.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.