WASHINGTON—The Reagan era in American politics is about to end, and we have George W. Bush to thank for its demise.
In this respect, it doesn’t matter who wins the Democratic nomination or even who wins the general election in the fall. I was going to try to write this column without using the word paradigm, but already I’ve failed: Regardless of who takes the oath of office in January, the paradigm that reigned for nearly three decades—the notion that government is useless, if not inherently evil—is no longer operative.
All three of the remaining presidential candidates propose a far more activist role for government. Even John McCain, who tells conservatives he’s a Reagan disciple, proposes far-reaching government action on issues such as climate change, high energy prices and the mortgage crisis—problems that are supposedly better left to the cruel genius of free markets, according to the old paradigm that Bush has pushed to absurd extremes.
It took a leader of the Decider’s uncommon gifts to kill the philosophy he worships. To be fair, there is one area in which he has been the most proactive of presidents, to our nation’s lasting discredit: violating the basic rights of citizens and noncitizens alike in the name of his “war on terrorism.”
Otherwise, he has interpreted Reagan’s small-government mandate as an excuse—or an instruction—to abdicate government’s most fundamental responsibilities. Anyone who wants to argue this point need simply remember the “heck of a job” our government did in handling the devastation from Hurricane Katrina.
Almost every day, there’s more evidence that 2008 is turning into one of those watershed years in American politics—1980, say, or 1968, or even 1932. You can start with the fact that the Democrats are poised to nominate the first African-American major-party candidate for president.
Even more telling, though, are the polls showing that soaring numbers of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction—more than eight out of 10, according to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll—and that Bush’s popularity has fallen to historic lows.
The grinding occupation of Iraq is only partly responsible for the nation’s discontent. Decades of government inattention have allowed chronic problems to grow and fester and putrefy and ... well, we’ll abandon that metaphor lest it turn into something that no one wants to read over breakfast, but you get the idea.
It turns out that Americans don’t want their leaders to simply shrug, as George Bush shrugs, at the fact that 47 million citizens do not have health insurance. It turns out that Americans don’t want their leaders to simply tsk-tsk, as George Bush tsk-tsks, at the wrenching economic dislocations that stem from globalization.
It turns out that if government declines to adequately regulate or even monitor the financial system, unfettered markets can make catastrophic blunders. When Joseph Schumpeter wrote admiringly of how capitalism was buffeted by the “perennial gale of creative destruction,” I doubt he was talking about exotic mortgage-backed securities so complicated that nobody really understood how much risk was being undertaken, or by whom. I also doubt that families facing foreclosure are much comforted by being told that they’re playing an essential role—that of loser—in classical free-market theory.
Evidence suggests that Americans are tired of a government that is slavishly beholden to a rigid do-nothing ideology—and that they’re ready to punish the president’s party for its ineptitude and lassitude. Republicans have gone 0 for 3 in special elections this year for House seats, most recently losing a Mississippi district that gave Bush a 62 percent landslide margin in 2004. What a difference four years can make.
Throughout the year, the Democratic primaries have drawn far more voters than the Republican contests. Democratic coffers are brimming and the party is bringing in millions of new voters. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are glamorous and exciting candidates, but this Democratic surge isn’t all about them. It’s also about the Republican Party’s utter exhaustion. Since Ronald Reagan’s first term, Republicans have set the nation’s ideological agenda. This was true even during the Clinton years. But it’s not true now.
Party leaders speak of the need to refurbish the “Republican brand.” The problem goes far beyond packaging, though. It’s not that the box needs to be more colorful, it’s that the ideas inside have long since gone stale.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group