Where the Reagan revolution should go from here
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.