Conservative Era is Over, Historian Sean Wilentz Writes

The old era has passed, whether or not a new one is starting, historian Sean Wilentz writes.

President Ronald Reagan giving televised speech about Iran.

President Ronald Reagan giving televised speech about Iran.

By + More

"It's gone," said Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan's political director, about the 40th president's once formidable national coalition. "It doesn't mean a whole lot to people anymore."

And that was in December 2007.

The Reagan coalition carried conservatism from the political margins to the pinnacle of power. Interrupted in the late 1970s and temporarily reversed in the 1990s, conservative ideas and policies dominated U.S. politics and government for 40 years, beginning with the Democratic crackup over Vietnam and urban unrest in 1968. Now, almost every major element of Reagan conservatism is in disrepute, including its cornerstone ideas about unregulated free markets and trickle-down prosperity.

Like the end of every American political era, the collapse of the age of Reagan has seemed sudden—so much so that conservatives are dazed, confused, and in denial. Yet the coalition's decline actually began in 1988, when GOP candidate George H. W. Bush, already suspect on the right, fell behind and ran a scurrilous campaign—recall Willie Horton—in order to win.

In 1992, Bill Clinton and the Democrats won back portions of the Reagan coalition and partly refurbished the fundamentals of liberal government. But Newt Gingrich and congressional Republicans conducted a scorched-earth counterattack that, coupled with Democratic divisions, hampered Clinton's efforts. In 2000, a single-vote conservative Supreme Court majority declared George W. Bush president.

Despite the dubious validity of his election, Bush governed as if he had won a crushing victory, trying to surpass the Reagan agenda—"the most Reagan-like politician we have seen," as Reagan image maker Michael Deaver called him. Vice President Dick Cheney tried to create a Richard Nixon-style imperial presidency, while political strategist Karl Rove squeezed maximum political gain out of public policy. Bush's response to the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, rallied the country and sent his approval ratings soaring. But after exploiting the "war on terror" for partisan advantage and handing domestic policy to Rove and company—dubbed "the Mayberry Machiavellis" by one disillusioned Bush official—the administration turned its opportunity into a historic disaster. Democratic weaknesses and public fears over national security allowed Bush to win re-election. Yet he finishes as the least liked modern president, his disapproval higher than Nixon's when he resigned.

The slide—and the accompanying disgrace of conservative politics—became a deluge in Bush's second term. Congress's dizzying interference in the dispute over the comatose Terri Schiavo brought revulsion at the GOP's disregard for law and privacy at the behest of its political base. The suffering and death in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed the bitter fruits of antigovernment dogma and the administration's buddy-buddy appointments. The continuing debacle in Iraq robbed the Republicans of the presumption of national security superiority, a presumption that even the stabilizing effects of the military surge and plans for a U.S. departure have not restored. Bush's Reaganite tax cuts drained Clinton's surpluses and fostered monster deficits that sapped the nation's economic and fiscal security. The subprime mortgage and credit market crises metastasized into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. As a procession of ex-Reagan officials distanced themselves from Bush and the GOP and supported Barack Obama, former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan conceded that his faith in the free market may have been misplaced.

Like Reagan in 1980, Obama won with a smaller mandate than meets the eye. Unlike Reagan, his policies remain largely indefinite. Clearly, though, the public has repudiated what remains of a political era that has come to stand for reckless, top-dog, supply-side cure-alls, overzealous deregulation, and hapless "small government" dogma, worsened by arrogance and bungling.

A new political era may be struggling to be born, but an old one has died.