It was one of the most definitive “realigning” elections ever. The challenger defeated an incumbent president by 10 percentage points, winning 44 states and 489 electoral votes. His coattails brought 12 new members of his party into the United States Senate, giving it control of the chamber for the first time in 26 years, and gained 33 House seats, yielding an “ideological majority.” Moreover, he had won with a clear call for political change, a frontal challenge to consensus liberalism encapsulated in a line from his inaugural address that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Yet after eight years in office that included a reelection in which he had won an 18-point popular vote majority, 49 states and 525 electoral votes, Ronald Reagan left office as a president whose impact on the structure and size of the federal government was, in the words of Ev Dirksen, “as a snowflake is on the bosom of the Potomac.” Not a single Cabinet department had been abolished; not a single significant Great Society program had been eradicated; the budget deficits he had identified as a “threat to our future and our children’s future” had reached peacetime records.
On an array of other fronts, the terrain was largely unchanged. Two of Reagan’s Supreme Court appointees—Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy—consistently voted to ratify the core of Roe v. Wade, making abortion a constitutional right. As president, he had supported and signed a law granting amnesty to an estimated 3 million to 4 million immigrants here illegally. He had worked with Democrats in Congress to strengthen Social Security with a compromise that tempered benefit increases but also made higher incomes subject to the tax. His tax reforms lowered marginal rates but put capital gains—the province of the affluent—on the same footing as ordinary income.
What makes this history so relevant—even startling—is that we are now looking at an election in which an incoming president, who lost the popular vote by a margin that may well exceed 2 million votes, who won the Electoral College by, in effect, drawing to an inside straight with three hairbreadth victories in three key states, may well preside over the most significant changes in public policy since the New Deal.
Donald Trump, and the Republican majorities in the Senate, are poised to wipe out the signature victories of his predecessor in areas ranging from health care to the environment. He will enter office as the first explicitly anti-free trade president since Herbert Hoover, committed to unraveling a series of agreements that underpin the root assumptions of global commerce. His list of potential Supreme Court nominees include judges who reject not simply the jurisprudence that led to the gay marriage and abortion decisions, but the arguments that led the Court to uphold New Deal legislation some 80 years ago and to bind states to the protections of the Bill of Rights.