Reagan's Fourth Term
Bill Clinton's electoral landslide did not signal, as E. J. Dionne opined in The Washington Post, "the end of the age of heroic conservatism,…overturning the verdict reached in 1980." Gloating pundits and Democratic operatives fail to understand that voters didn't reject the essence of Reaganism; instead, they tried to elect Ronald Reagan to a fourth term.
As Peggy Noonan noted in The New York Times, George Bush blundered when he "thought the American people voted for him in 1988. They didn't. They voted for the continuation of basic Reaganesque policies, which is what George Bush said he stood for."
Instead of getting Reagan II, however, voters ended up with Nixon Jr.: a president completely engrossed with foreign affairs who cynically delegated domestic policy to regulators and technocrats. This election day voters turned to Bill Clinton, the candidate who most clearly articulated an optimistic and inclusive vision of the nation's future.
Yet Clinton sent mixed messages. He ran as Reagan and anti-Reagan, an optimist who attacked Bush for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge while simultaneously savaging "trickle-down economics." Clinton's inconsistencies could shatter the high expectations his campaign encouraged. Consider:
• Reagan ran against government; Clinton ran against Washington. In the much-ballyhooed "year of the outsider," the Arkansas governor ran as a New Democrat ready to fix the mess in Washington. Longtime Clinton adviser Sen. David Pryor (D–Ark.) says the new administration will bring "a new vitality to government." But Clinton's campaign book, Putting People First, cites three problems with Washington: gridlock, PACs, and lobbyists. Clinton thus implies that he will sign every bill Congress passes. But wait. He also wants a line-item veto to restrict pork-barrel spending. Which will it be?
And by railing against all special interests, Clinton incredibly suggests that any president, Democrat or Republican, can shut out the organizations that actively worked for his election.
• Reagan tried to empower individuals; Clinton hopes to empower government. Reagan was not, as his critics argued, merely an apologist for corporate fat cats. His 1984 "America is working again" commercial tied government spending cuts to an explicitly individualistic message. "If the dream that built America is to be preserved," he said, "then we must not waste the genius of one mind, the strength of one body, or the spirit of one soul."
Echoing Reagan, Clinton likes to say, "We don't have one person to waste." And in Putting People First, he declares, "the answer to every problem cannot always be another program or more money." Yet this same document proposes more than 40 new government programs that will add $220 billion to the federal budget. Go figure.
• Reagan won by clearly articulating a consistent message; Clinton's priorities are indecipherable. Ronald Reagan could summarize his agenda in 10 words: Cut taxes. Cut spending. Cut regulations. End inflation. Rebuild defense. His record on the first three was mixed, at best. But he never lost his focus.
Even Clinton's most vocal supporters admit they have no idea what initiatives the first 100 days of the new presidency will feature. November 8 on Meet the Press, Newsweek's, Mark Miller, who received virtually unrestricted access to Clinton and his staff during the past 14 months, issued a warning: Since Clinton tries to listen to every ideological perspective, his administration may have no voice of its own.
Neither "every day, in every way, we are getting better and better" nor "putting people first" constitutes a governing philosophy. Bill Clinton will have to reinforce his optimism with policies that indicate a sense of direction.
Voters rejected George Bush once they found he wasn't Reagan II. They could quickly lose patience with Bill Clinton if he isn't Reagan III. Ronald Reagan's fifth term begins January 20, 1997.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Reagan’s Fourth Term".