It's one more salvo in the continuing campaign of political scientists who engage with the broader public to convince us (with pesky evidence) that almost nothing that we think matters in politics really matters, or matters much, or matters in the way we think it does. Here's the core of Bernstein's 'untransformational Reagan' argument:
Take a look at the Reagan myth. Did Reagan “ideologically shift the nation in his direction?” If we’re talking about voters, the answer is pretty clearly no. As Northeastern political scientist Bill Mayer showed in The Changing American Mind, if anything, public opinion on many issues became more liberal, not more conservative, during Reagan’s presidency (see also a nice post from George Washington University political scientist John Sides).
Did Reagan cast a shadow over subsequent policy debates? Sure, but no more than any other two-term occupant of the Oval Office—certainly not through fundamental conservative change. The growth of government, after cuts in 1981, started back up while Reagan was still president, and it’s hard to see Reagan’s influence in such measures as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). Reagan was, of course, a cold warrior, but so was everyone from Truman on—even Jimmy Carter.
Notwithstanding that Reagan may not have changed broad public opinion much, I think that he was in fact transformational, by means that Bernstein implicitly acknowledges.
First, implemented policy matters, as Bernstein notes in an exhortation to Obama:
Add it all up and Obama, if he wants to be a president who really changes things for the better, should … well, it’s boring and obvious, but he should mostly focus on promoting good public policy. Not fighting the good fight or talking the good talk for liberal ideals, but just getting done whatever he can get done given all the constraints that surround him. Well-implemented plans will be hard for subsequent presidents to displace. And presidents who make good policy tend to be popular, thereby ensuring that partisans seek to replace them (not only immediately, but into the future) with similar candidates. In other words, he should pretty much focus on being a good president, and let the rest of it take care of itself.Reagan radically changed our tax code. He cut the top income tax rate from somewhere around 70% to 28% and dramatically reduced the number of brackets. He later signed off on a deal that "saved" Social Security by sharply increasing payroll taxes. The two changes made the tax code less progressive. It's true that after the first major cut, incremental tax hikes by Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton gradually clawed back a good deal of the foregone revenue. But Bush Jr., espousing Reaganomics, subsequently gave back a large portion of the reclaimed revenue -- and we still labor within a tax framework erected by Reagan.
The second point is that if Reagan had little or no long-term effect on broad public opinion, he had a transformative effect on Republican rhetoric and dogma and therefore, to some extent (perhaps Bernstein would dispute this), on Republican practice. Bernstein half-acknowledges at least the rhetorical impact:
Any successful two-term president has the material to build a myth around, and Reagan (unlike Ike) has happened to benefit from a group dedicated to deifying him. His strengths were rhetorical, and people who write about politics like well-crafted words (people who televise politics like well-delivered words), so his rhetorical strengths tend to be overrated.It's not just political writers and taking heads who were influenced by Reagan's rhetoric: Republican politicians were too. In fact, in our contemporary political environment, at least on its right wing, the talking- head tail often wags the policymaking dog. Despite his frequent compromising with Democrats, Reagan articulated -- matchlessly, in Republican eyes -- the GOP's government-is-the-problem, taxes-kill-enterprise credos that have since hardened into dogma.
Bernstein argues that it's too early to judge the long-term impact of Reagan's policies. Maybe, but his signature tax cut was either effective or seemed effective, and economic growth was strong enough over the course of his two terms to fuel Republican claims going forward that tax cuts always drive growth, and that adequately funding government social programs always stifles growth. The appearance of policy success lent force to the rhetoric in followers' eyes, thereby ensuring its enshrinement as party dogma.
Obama could prove as lucky as Reagan and reap the benefits of a long-delayed strong economic recovery. The key to his legacy, I'd agree, would be good policymaking, not least through the hard slog of successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act in the face of unrelenting sabotage. But the real possibility also exists that he will arm Democrats, conceptually and rhetorically, for decades to come with compelling articulations of what's required (from a liberal point of view) to fulfill the promises implicit in the nation's founding documents.
Update: What's the danger for Obama is chasing the liberal Reagan mantle?