Reagan's Unfinished Agenda

Two questions currently preoccupy intramural conversations on the right. This first is, What's up with the Tea Parties? Is this wave of spontaneous protests against President Obama's program of sharply higher taxes and spending a movement of genuine depth, or just a spasm of discontent over losing an election? Once the teabags have been thrown figuratively into Boston Harbor again, is there a program, or just a caffeine jolt?

The second question is, Are the principles and example of Ronald Reagan still relevant for conservatives? Reagan ran at a different time; his famous axiom that "government is not the solution to our problems--government is the problem" is said to be inapplicable to the current economic crisis, which requires substantial government intervention to avoid total calamity. Some Republican leaders and even some conservatives say it is time to "get beyond Reagan," and look for something or someone new and different.

There will never be another Ronald Reagan, but before discarding his principles and example the Right might wish to ask itself a serious question about why what was called "the Reagan Revolution" 25 years ago is being apparently swept away with such ease by President Obama. Why didn't the Reagan Revolution succeed in erecting any lasting barriers to the governmental gigantism we are seeing today? What might Reagan say about this if he were surveying the scene now? Answering these questions might provide a program around which the Tea Party phenomenon can coalesce into a consequential movement.

Conservatives became too comfortable with the thought that populism would remain a reliable conservative force in American politics, and largely lost or disdained the art of constitutional argument.

The answer is contained in what I call "Mansfield's Razor," after Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University. Right after Reagan's election in 1980, Mansfield wrote, "Reagan would be well advised to find his conservatism in the Constitution rather than to adopt a conservative populism. If he does the latter, he is likely to discover that the radical means of populism will overcome and outlast the conservative ends." The paradox of American constitutionalism is that it rests our government on a popular basis, but also deliberately constrains government precisely to safeguard against populist excess, such as we are seeing at present.

Conservatives are dismayed and baffled at the sight of Obama's Latin American-style personality cult and at poll results showing astonishing erosion in public support for free markets and limited government. "This is a center-right nation," conservatives continue to insist. To be sure, Reagan and the conservative movement stoked the populist flames from the 1970s through the 1990s, with considerable success. But conservatives became too comfortable with the thought that populism would remain a reliable conservative force in American politics, and largely lost or disdained the art of constitutional argument.

Madison and Tocqueville knew better (as Mansfield has warned us repeatedly over the last two decades), and would not have been surprised by the present crisis. The other person who would not have been surprised is Ronald Reagan. This sunny optimist also warned repeatedly that "freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation." Reagan's greatest frustration as president was his inability to control spending. In contrast to Pres. George W. Bush, Reagan vetoed several "budget-busting" bills in the course of his presidency, only to see many Republican members of Congress join Democrats in overriding his vetoes. This led Reagan, late in his second term, to recognize the wisdom of Mansfield's Razor and to embrace a bold constitutional strategy that no one much remembers today.

Throughout his presidency Reagan argued repeatedly for a balanced-budget amendment, and also for an amendment granting the president a line-item veto. But, starting in 1987, Reagan offered a more comprehensive package he called the "Economic Bill of Rights." In addition to the balanced-budget and line-item veto amendments, Reagan proposed three additional amendments that would impose a federal spending limit, require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate for any tax increases, and prohibit wage and price controls.

These amendments never had a chance of passage during Reagan's presidency (the only one that ever came close was the balanced-budget amendment, which passed the Senate but failed in the House), and might not necessarily be good ideas to write into our fundamental charter--there are good arguments on both sides of each proposal. But, as a thought experiment, one can imagine how a constitutional spending limit, a supermajority requirement for tax increases, or a ban on wage and price controls would constrain Obama's agenda today. (With wage controls currently contemplated for the financial sector, and price controls for the health-care sector, how long before a burst of inflation inspires the Obamanauts to extend the idea across the whole economy again?)

One of the notable aspects of Obama's governmental gigantism is that there has been not the slightest peep about the constitutionality of his dictatorial manner of taking over the auto and banking industries, and hence little prospect of any serious constitutional argument over the coming conquest of the health-care sector. In this, Obama is simply following the advice of Woodrow Wilson that an increased role for the federal government could be accomplished "only by wresting the Constitution to strange and as yet unimagined uses." In other words, liberals have been effectively able to amend the Constitution simply by reinterpreting it (or essentially ignoring it). Conservatives do not have this luxury. Now that the implicit constitutional barriers to unlimited government have been deliberately eroded, turning back unlimited liberalism may require reviving what might be called the unfinished agenda of the Reagan Revolution--it may require formal constitutional amendments.

Constitutional amendments are deliberately difficult to pass, but one notable aspect of constitutional amendments in American history is that they tend to come in bursts, and usually at the behest of populist reform movements rather than as a matter of partisan calculation. Several of the Progressive Era amendments--especially women's suffrage and Prohibition--came as a result of pressure from populist agitation; likewise, a couple of the amendments of the 1960s and '70s came as a result of pressure from the civil-rights movement. Similarly, the failed attempt to enact the Equal Rights Amendment was a product of the feminist movement.

Here's where the Tea Parties come in. If the Tea Party movement wishes to stand for something concrete, and sensibly avoid being co-opted by the Republican party, it might consider embracing Reagan's Economic Bill of Rights (perhaps with the addition of term limits and an anti-earmark provision just to make sure the politicians stay away). It is not necessary that agitation for constitutional amendments actually succeed in getting the amendments adopted in order to have a significant political effect. There is no chance that the current Congress would even bring any of these amendments to a vote, though the Tea Parties could agitate for resolutions from state legislatures. The progress of feminism showed the Equal Rights Amendment to have been unnecessary for its larger social goals. Advocating amendments to secure new limits to government would have the salutary effect of putting liberals on the defensive, just as the balanced-budget movement and tax revolt of the 1970s assisted the rise of Reagan and conservatives in general in the 1980s. It is the kind of populism that would gain Tocqueville's approval and Madison's acquiescence. Above all, picking this fight would reintroduce constitutional ideas to America's political conversation. And not a moment too soon.

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.

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Steven F.
Hayward
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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