It was one of the most definitive “realigning” elections ever. The challenger defeated an incumbent president by 10 percentage points, winning 44 states and 489 electoral votes. His coattails brought 12 new members of his party into the United States Senate, giving it control of the chamber for the first time in 26 years, and gained 33 House seats, yielding an “ideological majority.” Moreover, he had won with a clear call for political change, a frontal challenge to consensus liberalism encapsulated in a line from his inaugural address that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Yet after eight years in office that included a reelection in which he had won an 18-point popular vote majority, 49 states and 525 electoral votes, Ronald Reagan left office as a president whose impact on the structure and size of the federal government was, in the words of Ev Dirksen, “as a snowflake is on the bosom of the Potomac.” Not a single Cabinet department had been abolished; not a single significant Great Society program had been eradicated; the budget deficits he had identified as a “threat to our future and our children’s future” had reached peacetime records.
On an array of other fronts, the terrain was largely unchanged. Two of Reagan’s Supreme Court appointees—Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy—consistently voted to ratify the core of Roe v. Wade, making abortion a constitutional right. As president, he had supported and signed a law granting amnesty to an estimated 3 million to 4 million immigrants here illegally. He had worked with Democrats in Congress to strengthen Social Security with a compromise that tempered benefit increases but also made higher incomes subject to the tax. His tax reforms lowered marginal rates but put capital gains—the province of the affluent—on the same footing as ordinary income.
What makes this history so relevant—even startling—is that we are now looking at an election in which an incoming president, who lost the popular vote by a margin that may well exceed 2 million votes, who won the Electoral College by, in effect, drawing to an inside straight with three hairbreadth victories in three key states, may well preside over the most significant changes in public policy since the New Deal.
Donald Trump, and the Republican majorities in the Senate, are poised to wipe out the signature victories of his predecessor in areas ranging from health care to the environment. He will enter office as the first explicitly anti-free trade president since Herbert Hoover, committed to unraveling a series of agreements that underpin the root assumptions of global commerce. His list of potential Supreme Court nominees include judges who reject not simply the jurisprudence that led to the gay marriage and abortion decisions, but the arguments that led the Court to uphold New Deal legislation some 80 years ago and to bind states to the protections of the Bill of Rights.
How could a president elected 36 years ago with a clear mandate change so little, while a president with no such mandate (seven in 10 Americans deny he has one, according to one poll) could well change so much? The answers lie in that word—“change”—and how it has affected the most basic workings of government and politics, and how these two presidents respectively came to power.
Ronald Reagan had been a hero of the right ever since his 1964 speech on behalf of the doomed candidacy of Barry Goldwater, but by the time he was elected president, he’d served for eight years as the governor of the nation’s most populous state, with a legislature under Democratic control. He had governed with the philosophy that “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy,” and, despite his sometimes heated rhetoric, compromise was a guiding principle of his political life. He’d named his primary opponent as his running mate, picked a longtime political adversary, James Baker, as his chief of staff and shunned his more hard-line acolytes. (For eight years, he addressed right to life demonstrations in Washington by speakerphone, rather than venture the mile down Pennsylvania Avenue to talk with them in person.)
He was similarly inclined on the international front. When the Soviet Union cracked down on Poland’s independent Solidarity movement in 1981, the Reagan administration responded with words of sympathy. When terrorists, almost certainly with Iranian backing, killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut, Lebanon, Reagan responded by … withdrawing U.S. forces a few months later. There was a caution in Reagan that neither his most ardent supporters nor his most fervent adversaries recognized at the time.
There was, however, another restraint on Reagan: the nature of the Republican Party. Yes, he’d vanquished the still-significant forces of moderates and liberals within his party. But a look at the GOP Senate caucus back in 1981 shows just how different the party was back then. At least 15 Republican senators—Charles Percy of Illinois, Howard Baker of Tennessee, Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon, Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, William Cohen of Maine and several others—could be classified as moderates or even liberals. A wholesale assault on Great Society legislation was simply not going to win the support of these Republicans, never mind the fact that the House of Representatives was still in the hands of Democrats.
Contrast this with the Congress that Trump faces. As Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have shown in their despairing look at Capitol Hill, the Republican Party in Congress has become a more and more homogenous, ideologically militant party, whose members’ biggest fear is being “primaried”—being seen as too willing to compromise with the enemy. It has embraced tactics, including a threat to upend the global financial system by holding the debt ceiling hostage, that would have been considered unthinkable a few years ago.
In this context, the idea of a Republican House and Senate acting as a brake on Trump seems almost fanciful. Yes, Rand Paul’s civil libertarian and anti-globalist impulses may lead him to oppose a nomination of an Attorney General Jeff Sessions or a Secretary of State John Bolton. But his would be a lonely voice—especially given the fact that the Republican base is in the hands, at least for now, of an incoming President who won by running head-on against the congressional wing of the party.
The prospects for sweeping change are even greater when you look at the Supreme Court; and here the key to change lies in the way the court has evolved in the decades since Reagan. Hard as it is to remember, there was a time when a justice’s predilections could not be predicted by the political party of the nominating president; and this was particularly true of Republican nominees. From Eisenhower through the first President Bush, a parade of justices named by GOP presidents wound up firmly on the judicial left or at least the middle: Warren, Brennan, Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, Souter. And then it changed. Staring with Clarence Thomas, every nominee has lined up exactly where the politics of the president would have suggested. Indeed, the justices have been so politically predictable that the occasional break—like Chief Justice John Roberts’ votes to uphold the Affordable Care Act—have been greeted with cries of political “treason.”
We have some clue into Trump’s thinking about thehigh court from his “60 Minutes” interview, in which he said that gay marriage is “settled law,” while his court choices would likely overturn Roe v. Wade. (How a year-and-a-half-old 5-4 decision is “settled” while a 43-year-old precedent is not might seem odd, but then Trump has said he understands the Constitution better than most).
The key I think, is that Trump is more than happy to cede the Supreme Court to those who care most about it, as a way of protecting his right flank from attack—just as his list of proposed court nominees won him crucial support from the evangelical right, and from allies like Hugh Hewitt. And among his list are judges who have called Roe v. Wade the worst Court decision since Dred Scott, as well as those with a skeptical view of decades worth of jurisprudence about the range of the Commerce Clause—the key to most federal business regulation—and even the scope of the 14th Amendment. (Odd as it may sound, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the court found that basic protections of the Bill of Rights could be applied to the states through the due process and equal protection clauses of that amendment. The key provisions of the Bill of Rights as written apply only to Congress).
And the prospect of a GOP-controlled Senate resisting a Trump nomination? Again, this is a very different Republican Party caucus from the one Reagan faced; back then, a half-dozen GOP senators voted to reject Robert Bork’s nomination. Today, it’s essentially the same caucus that backed Mitch McConnell’s move to deny even a hearing to Merrick Garland (the two missing Republicans—Kirk of Illinois and Ayotte of New Hampshire—were moderates). If Trump does have the chance to put three of his choices on the court—and the actuarial tables suggest he may well have the opportunity—the court will be staunchly conservative for years, perhaps decades, to come.
Is it odd that a Ronald Reagan, who won historic landslides, could change so little while a president who “lost” by a million or more votes might change so much? Chalk it up to the quirks of the Electoral College, or a late intervention by an FBI director, or a tone-deaf Democratic candidate, or to a simmering fury at the political-media elite by just enough disaffected voters to turn three states red, or to whatever contingent forces you choose. But the reality is those forces have brought us to the very real prospect of the most profound, unsettling changes in public policy in close to a century.
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