Where the Reagan revolution should go from here

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RONALD REAGAN has won half the battle: He has changed the way Washington talks. The other half - changing the way Washington works - will have to wait for another president, and another time. Don't conclude, however, that the Reagan revolution is over. Just as it took a hardball politician named Lyndon Johnson to bring Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to full flower, it will take another conservative president, and perhaps several decades, to put into practice the lessons Mr. Reagan has preached.

The failure of the Reagan administration to accomplish even more should not obscure some remarkable achievements: the longest economic expansion in history, with unemployment at its lowest in more than 14 years; major steps to deregulate the private sector and decentralize government power away from Washington to states and localities; changing geopolitical strategy from mere containment of totalitarian expansion to putting democratic capitalism on the offensive; and laying the foundation, through the Strategic Defense Initiative, for greatly diminishing the arms race and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The most important accomplishment of all, however, has been the very thing some have denigrated: overseeing a successful ideological revolution. The terms of the debate have been changed. Even liberals now talk about standards in school; jobs, rather than welfare; a strong defense; reasserting America's role as a world leader; and fiscal responsibility.

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The Democratic candidate, of course, says the presidential campaign is not about ideology, but competence. Surely the more important question is what an administration should try to be competent at. Focusing too much on the means of transportation without being clear enough on where you want to go can easily lead to buying a Rolls-Royce and driving it off a cliff.

Though we're not there yet, Reagan has clarified where we should go to the satisfaction not only of most conservatives but of many non-conservatives: We should go toward less government, more individual liberty, a stronger private sector, and peace through strength.

Conservatives still have the ideological initiative they seized in the late '70s. From being mere nay-sayers at liberal excesses or, worse, offering themselves as better managers of the liberal welfare state, conservatives have become yea-sayers for their own ideas.

But given the notorious immovability of Washington's ``permanent government,'' how much significant policy change is really possible? After nearly eight years of Reagan, the pressing adage ``Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect'' remains apt.

If Vice-President George Bush, Gov. Michael Dukakis, or any future president really wants to change things, he will have to attack them at the source: the budget. Taming the spending monster requires making those who feed it through the present budget process pay a political price. For example, until Congress has a political incentive to stop conducting business as usual, why would it want to consider turning over government services to the private sector - the strategy known as privatization?

Thus we reach the end of what ideology, by itself, can do. As a concept, Big Government has been almost universally discredited. I doubt there has ever been a presidential candidate who hasn't decried government waste and inefficiency. But the reason government keeps getting bigger, and the national debt higher, is the power of those who profit from government spending.

Few Americans - indeed, few congressmen - can so much as name more than a handful of the 1,052 programs described in the Office of Management and Budget's 7-pound ``Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.'' But any congressman who votes to cut any program can count on avalanches of mail not only from the program's alleged beneficiaries but also from the legions who administer it and hand out the goodies.

Can anything really be done in the face of this? Yes, but it's going to require people who not only believe limited government is a nice idea, but who have the determination and know-how to lock horns with the Washington establishment, instead of talking a good game but becoming ``flexible'' at crunch time.

Needed, then, is an administration not just of true believers but of fighters unwilling to be co-opted by a Washington establishment determined to maintain the status quo from which it profits so much at public expense. The Washington spending-machine can't be budged except through all-out war, which means making full use of those who understand the infighting, hardball methods needed to move Congress, and the important policy-implementing role of the White House's communications/information machinery.

The ideal first target for a new administration dedicated to dramatic change could be the budget process itself. Much has been written about the need to give the president line-item-veto authority, so he can strike wasteful pork from large spending bills. Few have had the courage, however, to state the obvious: The president already has this kind of budgetmaking authority. If he doesn't like certain programs funded by the big-spending Congress, he can strike them from his next budget. Then Congress has to justify the expenditure.

But the attack must be mounted on as many fronts as possible. Reagan could have made greater use of his veto power. This not only would have helped control government spending, but would have focused public attention on the real source of the mess: a Congress unwilling to offend middle-class constituencies by controlling the runaway growth of entitlement programs.

One of the great lessons of the Reagan administration can be summed up in three words: people are policy. A president dedicated to change must appoint people who see eye to eye with him on matters of policy, are willing to take the heat, and know only how to fight to win.

This is where the conservative movement's political, polemical, and public relations skills are needed in full. Such liberal legends as FDR, Johnson, and Tip O'Neill knew the importance of these skills. Conservatives must learn to use them as well.

In the long run, the conservative movement's new ideas - its better ideas! - will only be carried out if they are aggressively marketed to every willing listener. We know why things should be changed. And how they should be changed. We must convince the public, the Congress, and the media that change is not only necessary, but for the public good.

We know such change won't unalterably be determined by the next election, or by the departure of a two-term president. Whether an administration makes a lasting impact - one that, like FDR's, lives for decades - depends on its success in changing ideas and attitudes.

Edwin J. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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