As we move into a new era in American political life - maybe symbolized by the first female president, maybe the first black one, maybe the first Republican president in a generation to support abortion rights - it is useful to pause and reflect on the era we're leaving. And it may surprise you (but I doubt it will surprise historians) to consider that the era we're ending is what we might call the Age of Reagan.
For a quarter century or more, we have lived in a world ruled by the nostrums of Ronald Wilson Reagan. It seems, even now, a simpler, almost nostalgic era, for how quickly have we forgotten the battles over taxes, the uproar over ketchup as a vegetable, the befuddlement of the president in his debate with Walter F. Mondale, the accusations and inquiries over the Iran Contra affair. And the sense of nostalgia is even deeper because one of the important forces of morning-in-America Reaganism was nostalgia itself.
But some of the vital elements of the Reagan era have already passed into the mists of history:
¢ The iron bond between religious conservatives and Republicans. For a half-century, religious conservatives hewed to the Democratic line, wooed into the party by Franklin D. Roosevelt and transfixed by the notion that in Jimmy Carter, who spoke openly about being born again and who taught Sunday school, one of their own was in the White House.
But it was their revulsion toward Carter and the magnetic pull of Reagan that prompted one of the most significant migrations in American history, the movement of religious conservatives from the Democrats to the Republicans. It didn't matter that Reagan hardly went to church and was estranged from some of his children. What mattered was that every GOP platform carried a strong anti-abortion message. And then, with the election of a true religious conservative, George W. Bush, the bond seemed stronger than ever.
Now the leading Republican presidential candidate supports abortion rights, has been married three times and doesn't possess the sort of family-values personal life religious conservatives demand in their leaders. Do not doubt that the political earth has shifted.
¢ The conviction that a smaller government is a better government. Reagan spoke of this precept in his inaugural address. The extent of the conversion of the American people to the smaller-government ethos can be measured by the fact that Bill Clinton himself declared the era of big government to be over.
The era of big government being over is now over, and if you doubt it for a moment consider all those people at the security checkpoint at the local airport. Before George W. Bush was president, air-security personnel worked for private companies. That was the ultimate in privatization. Now those people work for a new agency (Transportation Security Administration) in a new Cabinet department (Homeland Security).
That is but a symbol of the way the nation now works and thinks. Hurricane Katrina prompted another huge burst in federal spending and federal infrastructure. There is pent-up demand among the public for new safety and business regulation. Nobody makes fun of government employees anymore, especially since so many of them are risking their lives in Iraq right now.
¢ The long, twilight struggle against communism is over. One of the vital elements of the Reagan Revolution was that Americans should shuck their innocence about the dangers of communism and the threat that Soviet Russia posed to world peace. One of the triumphs of Reaganism is that it presided over the Cold War and at least hastened the end of communism. (Historians are still fighting over whether it actually caused the demise of communism, and we'll await their verdict.)
But the United States' greatest threat now is not another nation-state, and the notion of vigorous, muscular engagement in foreign affairs now has been replaced by a neo-isolationism.
Like all important political revolutions, not all is lost from Reagan's.
There remains a deep skepticism of tax increases; you might get away with raising taxes today, but you have to explain yourself very clearly and be Ivory-soap pure about your motivations. There remains the sort of job insecurity that was so much a part of the Reagan era, though the new economic challenges now come less from Japan and more from China, India and South Korea.
There is also a sense - and this was an important part of the Reagan era - that new constituencies are emerging in the power structure. In the Reagan years, these were not only religious conservatives but operators of small businesses as well. In the new age, the new constituencies may be the various Internet political groups.
And the most enduring part of Reaganism? Surely it is the patriotism that Americans were too self-conscious to express before Reagan but remains an important part of America today. That, and respect for the military, are singular Reagan elements. No one who was alive in the Vietnam years, when veterans returned stateside only to be ignored by their hometowns and sometimes spat upon, can fail to remark upon the respect that American fighting men and women in Iraq receive from their countrymen and women.
In the Vietnam years, congressional war opponents sought simply to cut off funds for the conflict. In the Iraq years, no one introduces such a measure without adding a codicil that reads something like "except to support American troops still in the field."
We have left one era and are entering another. Such passages are always difficult, sometimes ironic. Here is the difficult, ironic part of this passage: President Bush set out in 2001 to complete the Reagan Revolution. Instead he must worry whether historians will argue that he finished it off.