Nearing the ’90s: Bush presidency promises to extend the Age of Reagan

The Age of Reagan seems likely to last for at least four more years. The Bush victory, a rather substantial one that depended heavily on votes of those who like what Reagan advocated, surely suggests that.

A Dukakis victory would not have forced one to make a radically different projection, for the Massachusetts governor also felt heavy pressure from Reagan’s agenda. Consider the Democratic candidate’s reluctance to identify himself as a liberal, his refusal to commit himself to a tax increase, his highly publicized ride in a tank.

The fact that 1988 was the first election since the 1940s in which a party maintained control of the White House for more than two terms calls attention to similarities between Franklin Roosevelt’s time and Ronald Reagan’s. Reagan, amazingly popular once again after his recovery from the Iran-Contra affair, has impacted on his time as Roosevelt influenced his, and just as Roosevelt’s shadow extended well beyond 1945, Reagan’s seems likely to reach beyond 1988.

Reagan preached a negative philosophy of the federal government in domestic affairs, a positive one in military matters. He worked to prevent hostility toward the military and a large role in world affairs—the Vietnam analogy as opposed to the Munich analogy—and negative appraisals of continued economic growth from becoming dominant opinions.

His legacy includes lower tax rates, higher defense spending, a massive deficit in the federal budget, and a gigantic national debt. He was not able to cut the federal government’s domestic activities as much as he wanted, a fact that contributed to the size of the deficit.

And, benefiting from a highly significant political change in the Soviet Union, he opened up, to the surprise of his followers as well as his critics, a new era of negotiations with the Soviets, which he explained as a benefit of the renewed strength of American military forces. That era seems certain to continue, though Bush expressed more skepticism about it than Dukakis did. Its benefits seem obvious to people of diverse points of view in all parts of the world.

The negative side of Reagan’s attitude toward the federal government, an attitude that is not as popular as he is, contributed to another feature of the near future: divided government. While the Republicans maintained control of the White House, the Democrats strengthened their hold on Congress, an unusual development.

Polling evidence suggests that the American people now like such a distribution of power. They are not willing to entrust full control of Washington to any one party. They wish each to be strong enough to watch the other and do so effectively. They believe that Johnson betrayed them after his big victory in 1964, Nixon did so after 1972, and they have doubts about Bush as well as about Dukakis and the Democrats. Thus, congressional investigations of the executive branch seems certain to remain an important part of our political process.

Furthermore, we may witness a struggle between the White House and the Congress over which is to supply leadership. In that struggle, Bush has one advantage: He occupies the office upon which we have come to depend for leadership. That also means that he is under pressure to lead during a time of difficult choices and divided power.

George Bush promised to be the “education president” and also a conservation president. If he fulfills those promises, there should be a high level of cooperation between the White House and Congress in those areas. He did not promise to be a civil liberties or a civil rights president. These surely will be areas of conflict, especially when the president makes and presses forward his choices for the Supreme Court.

Although pressure for action is mounting, giant deficits in the federal budget seem likely to remain a feature of the landscape in the years ahead. It seems doubtful that the economy will grow fast enough to balance the budget without help from fiscal policies; but Reagan’s view of taxes has not lost its popular appeal.   ·

Bush, who became Reagan’s disciple on fiscal policy, has assured us that he will not raise taxes, and Congress will not run the political risks involved in taking the lead on this issue. Bush also promised to resist pressure to reduce military spending or cut Social Security.

And the Democrats in Congress know that the popularity of many domestic programs, often expensive ones, contribute significantly to Democratic control of the legislative branch.

Perhaps the only solution to the deficit problem that could get the required support inside the United States would be an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union to end the arms race and scale down the armed forces on both sides. This means that our economic situation as well as the economic difficulties in the Soviet Union supplies pressure for negotiations and thus offers another reason to believe that they will go forward.

The new president also promised that we will continue to live in the “American Century,” making that promise in his acceptance speech at the Republican Na­tional Convention. The concept goes back to Henry Luce of Time, Life, and Fortune in the early 1940s and was rejected by Henry A. Wallace, a politician who failed in his efforts to give us an alternative vision (“The Century of the Common Man”). The American Century not only rejected American isolationism but also called for an American brand of imperialism.

Reagan thought in such terms, most obviously in Central America, but many congressional Democrats and some Republicans in Congress resisted his leadership on this point and will resist Bush’s. Thus, this policy area seems destined to continue to be one of conflict between the White House and Capitol Hill. The next four years appear certain to be characterized more by continuity than by change. The division between Congress and the Presidency will hamper the forces of innovation. Bush’s ties with Reagan and the broad scope of the latter’s popularity and influence will provide strength for the forces of continuity. And it is relevant that that popularity and influence are substantial in the younger generation and the growing South and West. In emphasizing continuity, I do not mean to suggest that Bush will be a duplicate of Reagan in the exercise of presidential power. In addition to their differences in class background and personality, there are important differences between the two men in motivation and style.

Bush is less ideological, more pragmatic, less distrustful of Washington, D.C. and of government. Reagan was chiefly interested in the realization of a set of objectives, while Bush appears to see the office as mainly an opportunity to serve. He lacks Reagan’s ability (a key to his suc­cess) to project a clear vision of the future he desires or his talent before the TV cameras. Reagan also paid little attention to the details in the operations of his administration. Bush, a person who has always served below the top, seems certain to be more attentive to those details.

Thus, the new president will differ from his predecessor in some ways, and some of the differences will trouble those for whom Reagan is a hero and generate charges, such as Truman encountered, that Bush is not a worthy successor.

Nevertheless, Reagan will continue to exert a powerful influence, much as FDR did. Reagan’s presence will be a large part of the context within which Bush and others, including the congressional Democrats, function. The next four years will extend the “Age of Reagan” much as the Truman years continued the “Age of Roosevelt.”

A historian, of course, should not write so confidently about the future, for history is full of surprises. Who could have predicted the turbulence that erupted in the United States in the 1960s? Who, other than the Marxists, a small group in the U.S., did predict the Great Depression of the 1930s?

There are conditions in the nation today, including a large and growing urban underclass and the huge budget deficits, that could trigger events similar to those that emerged in the 1930s or 1960s.

Our system of divided government will be tested by its ability to avoid crises. Will the Republican president or the Democratic Congress come forward with a bold program to tackle the deficit or the problems of the underclass and provide effective leadership on such issues? There are good reasons to doubt that they will.

Perhaps a crisis will end the Age of Reagan.

Richard S. Kirkendall is an authority on New Deal and post-World War II politics and he holds the Bullitt Chair of American History at the UW He received his bach­elor’s degree in history from Gonzaga University in 1950 and his master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Wisconsin in 1953 and 1958.