The last time a presidential candidate won a landslide that simultaneously carried his party to resounding congressional gains was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan captured 44 states and swept a dozen new Republicans into the Senate and nearly three dozen into the House.
Even under their rosiest scenarios, Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats would not quite match that performance this year. But unless John McCain recovers, Obama could score a decisive Electoral College and popular-vote victory that provides his party a real chance of securing double-digit gains in the House and maybe even the Senate.
Reagan's commanding victory 28 years ago marked what many historians see as a hinge in American history -- a moment that was a transition between political eras. If the Democrats win a victory of comparable breadth on November 4, the obvious question will be whether 2008 marks another transition, this time toward a political era that operates with very different assumptions than what historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton University has called (in the title of his recent book) The Age of Reagan.
Reagan's victory changed the parameters of the possible not only for his presidency but for those that followed. From the Depression through the 1970s, the political system's default instinct was to create a federal program to respond to each new national challenge, from safeguarding retirement to cleaning the environment. During this era, even Republican presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon saw their role more as slowing than as reversing government's expansion.
With Reagan's election, that consensus shattered. He succeeded only imperfectly at taming government's growth. Reagan cut taxes and slashed regulation, but he couldn't stop the rise in spending, particularly on entitlements. But Reagan's insistence that "government is the problem" crystallized public doubts about Washington that had been festering since the 1960s. And he shifted the advantage from those who would expand government's reach toward those who would limit it. The lingering power of that Reagan consensus handcuffed even Bill Clinton, the lone Democratic president elected since 1980, as the former Arkansas governor painfully discovered when public resistance to greater government involvement helped defeat his plan for universal health care.
Reagan's victory proved so influential because it represented the convergence of two distinct political failures. One was the immediate debacle of Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency. The other was the collapse of the New Deal model of interest-group liberalism that had guided the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt. The first was a failure of performance; the second, a failure of ideas. Carter's personal failure contributed more to Reagan's 1980 victory. But more significant over time was the ideological failure -- the sense, shared largely even by Carter and many younger Democrats, that traditional liberalism could no longer effectively address the country's most difficult problems.
Even if Democrats win big next month, they will face the challenge of understanding what kind of victory they have won. Large Democratic gains unquestionably would reflect a severe judgment on George W. Bush's performance as president. Although history may commend some of Bush's twilight decisions (including the financial rescue package and the "surge" in Iraq), his failures far outnumber his successes. And he is approaching Election Day with the highest disapproval rating (71 percent) the Gallup Poll has recorded for any president.
Less clear is whether a big Democratic win would represent an ideological pivot like 1980. Many Democrats believe that a breakthrough next month, coming after a financial meltdown that has discredited unfettered markets, would represent the public's repudiation not just of Bush's performance but of Reagan's small-government ideas. "It's the end of the Age of Reagan," says Wilentz, who is generally identified with liberal causes.
Conservatives are dubious. "The problem is more political than ideological. It is more with the Republican Party than the conservative movement," says Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This isn't an academic dispute. Assume for a moment that Democrats are provided uniform control of the federal government in 2009: They are more likely to swing for the fences with new programs, mandates, and taxes if they believe they have achieved an ideological, and not just a partisan, victory. If Obama wins, the threshold question he'll face in devising his governing strategy will be whether his election represents a triumph over just McCain and Bush -- or the conquest of Reagan, too.
This article appears in the October 18, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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