The outcome of this November's election may hinge on a single question: which presidential candidate will prevail among the "Reagan Democrats"? Those traditionally Democratic voters made history—and a place in the political lexicon—in 1980 when they bolted their party's disarrayed ranks to swing the polls in Ronald Reagan's favor. Until recently, however, few liberal-leaning historians took a respectful look at the Reagan phenomenon. That's finally changing, with the publication of Sean Wilentz's new "The Age of Reagan," even as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—and John McCain—seek the support of that crucial bloc. NEWSWEEK's Evan Thomas moderated a conversation about the Gipper between Wilentz, a professed liberal, and NEWSWEEK's George F. Will, a longtime Reagan admirer.
THOMAS: Sean, why have you taken a look at Reagan, and have other historians started to take another look at Reagan?
WILENTZ: It's interesting. It's no secret that intellectuals, generally being liberals, didn't think much of Ronald Reagan at the time. Unlike Roosevelt, who got covered right away—as soon as he died there were books out about [him]—it took people a long time to catch up with Ronald Reagan. But I think that now they can no longer ignore him. His impact on the world and country, whether you like it or not, was so important that to ignore him is to ignore an entirety of American politics.
THOMAS: And why did it take so long?
WILENTZ: People had to overcome their own passions, their own dislikes. Some people had to grow up. Some people, it was a matter of all their ideas ripening. Ronald Reagan was difficult to read. His own official biographer couldn't make head or tail out of Ronald Reagan, and he had more access than most. Look, he was a conservative in a conservative age. This is not, normally, what is the stuff of heroic history. It just doesn't fit the mold in the way that Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln does. It's just different.
THOMAS: So, George, why do you think it took Sean so long to figure out Reagan was a great president?
WILL: Let me make [a couple of] points about what Sean just said. First, an intellectual is not a synonym for liberal. In fact, one of the differences Ronald Reagan made, and one of the differences that made Ronald Reagan, was there had emerged, particularly in the 1970s, a conservative intellectual movement—the think tanks and journals and all the rest. Secondly, what Sean is doing is what Murray Kempton did for Dwight Eisenhower. It took Murray Kempton to take a step back and say, "Wait a minute, this man, who did after all run the most complicated war alliance in history, who had dealt with de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and all the rest, was not a child. He was a subtle, devious, guileful man, difficult to read." That's the phrase Sean just used about Ronald Reagan—and Ronald Reagan was difficult to read. He had an actor's sense of the surface and the inner. Ronald Reagan's famous jokes were a way, I believe, to keep people at a distance. It was an armor of affability that he had, and [that] made him difficult to read, and I think he realized that would cost him among the historians for a while. My question is, Sean just said Reagan didn't fit the mold. I want to know what mold, and who made it?
WILENTZ: I think the liberal mold—not [made] by intellectuals, George. You're absolutely right: in the 1970s there was a great efflorescence of conservative intellectual life. I was thinking more of the academy. I think there is a mold which was thought [of] in the 1950s as the all-pervasive, consensus, liberal tradition in the American life. And the mold was a great leader who mobilizes a coalition, which manages to take on the interests, one way or another—whether it's the slave[-owning] power or the malefactors of great wealth. These are the characters we think of and who are usually liberals in one way or another. What Reagan did was something different—it was to lead with the same spirit and optimism and forward-looking hope that liberals had projected, but in the name of policies that were frankly conservative. And he managed to do that in a way that no previous president, and certainly no conservative president, had managed to do before.
WILL: I think that's right. What makes Ronald Reagan hard to fit quite into the American or even conservative tradition is that he understood that you cannot govern this country if you're a pessimist. Pessimism has always been a strand of conservatism—pessimism about human nature, pessimism about government. Reagan simply understood when people said that Eisenhower's smile was his philosophy. In a way, that was Reagan's philosophy. He said that when the American people are happy, good things happen: they invest, they save, they have children. So he thought that getting America back to cheerfulness was an intensely practical program.
THOMAS: Sean, let me ask you this. We often talk about presidential eras. Now that we talk about the Reagan era, is it over?
WILENTZ: I do think there was a Reagan era and I think it's on its way out. Part of that is due to the success of Reagan's presidency and the success of the conservative movement, whether you like it or not. There are two things that, if you stood looking to the future in 1980, would have been amazing. One is, we don't have top marginal income tax [rates] at 70 percent. We are never, in our lifetimes, going to see that again. Secondly, the Soviet Union does not exist. If nothing else, those two changes have fundamentally reordered world politics and the instruments for reform and of government in America.
WILL: I think that's right. I think it's often the case that a really effective leader undercuts his or her reputation by their various successes of leadership. I'm thinking of Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher came into power when there was a question: Who governed England? Was it governed from Westminster or was it governed from Transport House, the headquarters of the labor movement in Britain? She broke the power of the unions over the Labour Party. Her vanquishing of these old problems was so successful that people wonder now, what was the big deal? What did she do? The same thing is true with Ronald Reagan. To listen to our politics, you have to listen with a third ear to hear what's not said. No one is talking today about 70 percent marginal tax rates. There's no real rival to the American model of how to run a modern industrial society.
WILENTZ: That's right.
THOMAS: Was Reaganism very dependent on his personality or his style of leadership or is there a coherent ideology that can exist without his personal qualities?
WILENTZ: I think there is an ideology but Reaganism ultimately was Reaganism. It wasn't conservatism or Republicanism, it was Reaganism. You couldn't find a successor, either on the right or in the old party establishment. When you did, members of the coalition began to eye each other very warily, which is what the situation is today in the Republican Party.
I don't think, though, that it was simply a matter of his personality. Ronald Reagan was much more serious than people have given him credit for. He understood that governing required compromise, unlike the current administration. He would be happy to go out and give a speech that made him sound like he was the greatest doctrinaire since Huey Long. But, in fact, he'd go to the back room and get done what he could get done.
WILL: The key is to understand the economy of leadership: you should have ideas, and they should be clear, but most of all they should be few—three at the most. Re-arm the country, cut the weight of government and win the cold war. After that we'll see. That's what Napoleon said: "You win and then you see."
THOMAS: Sean, for somebody who's associated with the liberal academic establishment, you're being very complimentary of Reagan. Surely there's something about him you don't like.
WILENTZ: Ronald Reagan made some very grave errors while in office. I think the Iran-contra affair showed that [the] care with which he'd protect the Constitution was not what it ought to have been. He was overcome in that case by his desire to get the hostages out of Lebanon and by those who said they could do it. I don't think the S&L [savings and loan] crisis was so much a matter of Reagan as his administration. There were plenty of warnings that something was going terribly wrong. Deregulation was an example where some things went right but a lot went wrong. On the issue of taxes, he brought things down to a point where things got way out of hand.
THOMAS: It seems one of his legacies in the political arena is never raising taxes, that that's a sin.
WILL: He raised them all the time.
WILENTZ: Yeah, he had the biggest tax raises in history practically.
WILL: He also, as governor of California, signed the most liberal abortion law in American history. He got away with that, too. Maybe that's something Sean should explore in his next volume. How do great leaders get away with it?
WILENTZ: But there's a difference that I think Reagan understood on the tax issue. There's a difference between raising taxes and lowering marginal rates. He put his emphasis on the first. He went public to say, "We can't do this anymore." But that is not what he'd gone to the mat for. And in fact, going to the mat for something else, he structurally changed things much more dramatically. Taxes can go up and down, but he understood that a change in the system is different than a change that happens year to year. So, I think that's part of his leadership style: "All right, I have to do this now to get something bigger down the line."
THOMAS: Sean, you talked about how the old Reagan coalition is splintering, but the Democrats are having trouble maintaining their base because there's such a thing as a Reagan Democrat who may vote Republican. Is that part of Reagan's legacy?
WILENTZ: The first Reagan Democrat was probably Ronald Reagan, who understood very well the legacy of the Democratic Party and how it had changed in 1968. What we're seeing is a fight that's been going in the Democratic Party for 40 years.
WILL: I was at the Truman library in Independence, Mo., last week, and was looking at a black-and-white photograph of Harry Truman giving a speech in a stadium in Los Angeles during the '48 campaign. Seated next to the lectern, right next to Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, is a man who had introduced Truman, and it was a 37-year-old Ronald Reagan. That was probably the last time he voted for a Democrat. And so Sean's right, he was the first Reagan Democrat, but what really made Reagan Democrats were Democratic policies. One of the worst things that ever happened to American education but one of the best things that happened to American conservatism was busing of schoolchildren for racial balance. This just crystallized the sense of a lot of working-class Americans [that] policies were imposed on them by people who had no intention of ever being exposed to them themselves. All these people sending their kids to private schools were telling others which public school their kid should go to.
WILENTZ: To add to that, I would say that what made it fiercer and more passionate was the ways in which the liberal Democrats interpreted the resistance to their policies, which was always to blame the people who were resisting for being narrow-minded or racist, not up to their own enlightened idea of the way Americans ought to be. There was a contempt, there was an elitism that was not a part of the Democratic Party of Harry Truman that came into play in the aftermath of the black-power movement and Vietnam. It's not to say there wasn't racism in America or small-minded people. But you don't go about winning people's votes by saying, "You're a small-minded racist."
WILL: I'll just add, there's a wonderful book called "The Liberals' Moment," about [George] McGovern's 1972 campaign and about McGovern, who's become a friend of mine recently. It talks about what Sean was talking about, how '68 was one kind of fracturing of the Democratic Party, but in a way, less important than the fracturing of '72, because that set the precedent for the Obama-Clinton divide between the well-educated and affluent liberals and the others. What happened in '72 was the aggressive, conscious, tough, skillful disenfranchising of organized labor and of the big city machines, by George McGovern. McGovern was thought of as a soft prairie farmer. He was one tough cookie, a man who took a nonexistent Democratic Party in South Dakota and produced a senator—that was himself—not many years later. What happened in '72—that formalized, aggressive takeover of the Democratic Party by one faction at the expense of another—is what we're seeing playing out right now. It is no accident, comrade, that in '76 Reagan makes a strong run and in '80 he makes it into the White House over the remains of the badly divided Democratic Party.