June 10, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial appears in the August 20, 1982, issue of National Review.
That is the question posed, with great insistence, by the July issue of the Conservative Digest, the entire magazine consisting of a compendium of conservative criticism of the Reagan Administration old right, new right, neoconservative, supply-side, economic conservative, right-to-life, anti-Communist. The quotations employed are highly selective; many of the people quoted have also praised various aspects of the Administration's performance. And the overall impression created, of an Administration bewildered and stumbling, and losing sight of its principles and its goals, surely does less justice to the actual record.
Reagan did, after all, succeed with his three-year tax cut, he did impose sanctions on the Euro-Soviet pipeline, and, despite accommodationist pressures from the State Department, he is selling the necessary equipment to Taiwan. He has taken a much firmer position on the forthcoming arms-limitation talks than both Al Haig and the State Department desired. In his recent public addresses, most notably in London and before the United Nations, he has brought to the political forum an unaccustomed articulation of certain geopolitical realities. The President's instincts appear to be sound and intact.
Throughout Mr. Reagan's political career, a kind of tension and resulting rhythm have been observable. Reagan himself has been remarkably consistent and principled, and he is the most successful conservative political figure in postwar America. It is only apparently paradoxical that he has aimed at major changes in the status quo.
His tax-cut and supply-side economics are at once conservative and radical, in the root sense of the word: they cut through to the root of economic behavior. And, indeed, there is movement. Interest rates are falling, care sales are up, inflation has been cut in half.
Reagan's "new federalism" is equally conservative and radical. If enacted, it would give voters at the state level the option of funding or dropping some forty programs, most of which, it is safe to say, they have never heard of and probably do not want.
But Reagan has always operated in a political context in which his true radicalism is not understood, or, if understood, not entirely credited. In the 1980 primary battles, John Sears, until his overdue dismissal, tried to package Reagan as an orthodox well, "Fordist" Republican. The voters, then and in the general election, preferred the real Reagan. Again and again, Reagan had to push for his very popular policies against the resistance and incomprehension of conventional-minded proponents of the status quo and the so-called politics of the possible.
Mr. Reagan is certainly not to be exempted from criticism. The Conservative Digest is correct in its thesis that the State Department middle echelons contain too many holdovers who are fundamentally opposed to Reagan's direction. It is astonishing that Reagan should support, rather than threaten to veto, the huge tax increase being engineered by Senator Robert Dole. But what the Conservative Digest has done is drop a sort of rhetorical cluster-bomb, using selective quotations not to advance reasonable criticism but to exclude further discussion.