Here’s a dirty secret about Ronald Reagan: he never would have been elected president if he hadn’t been running in 1980.
For their own good, Republicans, who have turned worship of the 40th president into their unofficial religion (my favorite moment of last summer’s G.O.P. convention was when a video tribute to Abraham Lincoln was interrupted by an ill-fitting Reagan cameo), really need to come to grips with this.
This isn’t to diminish Reagan’s obvious political and oratorical talents or the significance of his presidency. His victory in ’80 represented the dramatic culmination of a decades-long rightward shift among the American electorate—one rooted, ironically enough, in the success of the New Deal and spurred on by the Democratic Party’s decision to fully embrace civil rights in the 1960s.
But even at that, it still took high unemployment, double-digit inflation and an endless hostage drama in Tehran to convince Americans that Reagan, widely viewed as a conservative extremist in ’80, was worth the risk. Had he been the G.O.P. candidate in, say, 1976 or 1968 (the other years he ran for the nomination), he likely wouldn’t have fared much better than Barry Goldwater, whose perceived extremism prompted his landslide defeat in 1964.
With his election and enduring popularity over the next eight years, Reagan brought government-is-the-enemy rhetoric into the political mainstream, making it fashionable for candidates to run as conservatives throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and into this decade.
But the show is over. Its official end came last November, when Democrats finally broke through at the presidential level, winning a sweeping victory made possible—as with Reagan’s in ’80—by a brutal economy, flagging national confidence and frustration with the basic governing philosophy that had prevailed for the previous several decades. Just as the New Deal/Great Society consensus gave way to the Reagan Revolution, the Reagan Revolution has now, once and for all, given way to the age of Obama.
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