Five years ago, all Washington was abuzz with the prospects for the “Reagan Revolution.” Today, my friends in Washington still occasionally use the phrase: “the Reagan Revolution.” They still use the future tense.
Why do the President’s most ardent supporters invent excuses for his failure to meet their expectations? Why do Reaganites always blame members of the White House staff (some named, some anonymous) for the President’s failures — as if those staff members were not subject to the President’s control? In his press conferences, why does Reagan himself cite his experience as Governor of California — as if the President of the United States, in his second term, still required evidence of his qualifications?
Ronald Reagan has completed more than two-thirds of his double term in office. He is no longer learning the ropes; he should be at the height of his political powers. If he has not exercised control over his staff over the last five years, he is not likely to begin now. Isn’t it time to stop measuring his potential, and start measuring his performance?
On one score, few would dispute that Reagan has been a success. His rhetorical accomplishments have been phenomenal. His confident patriotic messages have come as a balm to Americans who had heard more than enough speculation about their national “malaise” from his predecessor. Of course, no one factor can explain the recent burst of optimism and confidence in America. And White House publicists only burlesque the issue when they claim that, because Bruce Springsteen sings patriotic songs, he must perforce be a Reaganite. Still, Reagan deserves some share of the credit. And to restore the nation’s pride and confidence — even to contribute to that restoration — is no mean accomplishment.
But beyond rhetoric, what has Reagan wrought? As a presidential candidate Reagan promised dramatic tax cuts; five years later, overall tax bills are slightly higher. He promised huge cuts in federal spending; he managed only to slow its steady growth. He promised tax reform and simplification; instead Congress tinkered with the trimmings on the existing ramshackle structure. He promised welfare reform; the destructive old system is still in place.
As the keystone of his foreign policy, the candidate Reagan promised to engage Soviet propagandists in the worldwide “battle of ideas”; his administration produced the insipid “Let Poland Be Poland.” He promised an effort to roll back Communist domination; now his supporters flex their muscles and think nostalgically of Grenada. He vowed to punish terrorists, but terrorists — and their public sponsors — go unpunished. Standing Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim on its head, the Reagan administration has chosen to speak stickly and carry a big soft.
But in my mind, all these issues pale in comparison with the one overwhelming factor on the American political scene: the continuing slaughter of unborn children. On that issue, Ronald Reagan has been unflinching. No one can legitimately doubt his opposition to abortion; he has used the bully pulpit to great advantage. When has any other president written a book — while in office — on a controversial subject? Reagan’s book, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, is a truly extraordinary sign of his commitment to the pro-life cause.
And yet…. Despite his obvious commitment, President Reagan has not been able to enact pro-life legislation. Worse than that; he has not even succeeded in bringing such legislation up for a vote. He is the unchallenged head of the Republican Party, yet during his five years in office, the Republican-controlled Senate has never even brought an anti-abortion measure to the floor for a vote.
No one doubts Reagan’s persuasive powers, or his skills as a lobbyist. Time and again, he has prodded, cajoled, and bullied Congress to act on the issues he considers crucial: taxes, the budget, the MX missile, aid to the contras. Those are, indeed, important issues. But Ronald Reagan proclaims that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being; it follows that hundreds of Americans are being slaughtered every day. If I spent my time balancing my checkbook, while my children were drowning nearby, society would rightly judge me as criminal, or insane, or both. How can the President publicly acknowledge the horror of abortion, yet reserve his fullest attention for the budget?
Most American politicians, alas, do not view abortion as a crucial issue. And since it is undoubtedly an emotional issue, fraught with political dangers, most politicians would prefer to leave the topic untouched. But when Ronald Reagan was inauguarated, his joyous supporters (myself among them) spoke of “rewriting the agenda” of the federal government. With Reagan at the helm, we felt sure, Washington would be forced to treat questions that previous administrations had refused to recognize; abortion was one of those crucial questions.
Today, the problems that dominate conversations around the White House are strikingly similar to those that dominated the Carter White House, and presumably would have dominated the Mondale White House. Reagan’s answers may be different, but the questions have not changed. Five years into the vaunted Reagan Revolution, the agenda seems reasonably clear: business as usual.