What did Reagan have going for him? Undoubtedly a lot of things, but I’m interested in one in particular, viz., that he was the first national politician who made movement conservatism work for him in his capacity as a democratic politician.
Barry Goldwater was the prototype of the modern “movement conservative” politician. The “conscience of [this] conservative” was largely an artifact of the intellectual rebellion against the Republican establishment spearheaded in the 1950s by William F. Buckley and his comrades at National Review (including L. Brent Bozell, ghostwriter of Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative). If you had to compress the Goldwater-National Review domestic-policy pitch into a sound bite, it would be that the liberalism represented by LBJ’s Democratic Party was mobilizing national democratic majorities to trample on traditional economic liberties and invade the prerogatives of the sovereign states. Goldwater and the old Buckleyites were still pining for the pre-New Deal constitutional order under which most of what we now recognize as modern liberalism was presumptively unconstitutional. The fact that they were now obliged to make their case in a democratic forum left Goldwater tilting at political windmills, and the Buckleyites “stand[-ing] athwart history, yelling stop!
By all accounts Ronald Reagan was the politician who turned the movement conservatism that sprouted from seeds planted by the National Review crowd in the 1950s into a mass-market political brand. It’s easy to forget how improbable the break-through seemed at the time. Jimmy Carter greeted the news that he’d be running against Reagan with a sigh of relief like that you’ll be hearing from Obama if Republicans are crazy enough to nominate Sarah Palin to run against him in 2012. Carter never suspected that the political ground was shifting beneath his feet and only partly because of his administration’s abject failures. In at least one crucial respect, he wasn’t facing the sort of conservative movement that LBJ had routed 16 years before. Movement conservatism had become a democratic movement.
Consider what National Review’s editors had to say in 1957 about the suppression of minority voting-rights in the South (my emphasis):
It’s hard to say what’s more anachronistic about this passage, the reflexive racism implied by the casual identification of Jim Crow with “civilized standards,” or the idea that, as a matter of political morality, anyone’s notion of “civilized standards” could trump other people’s voting rights. Let’s not get into the tiresome argument conservatives and liberals are still having about the extent to which movement conservatism has outgrown the racism. It matters much more that there’s virtually no room for argument about its having outgrown its old ambivalence toward democracy.“The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. …
“National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.”
Ronald Reagan would have been the last guy to be caught dead disparaging anyone’s right to a fair say at the ballot box about the conduct of public affairs. He’d come to Washington riding a wave of popular anger against high taxes, intrusive government and “enlightened” social morality. By the end of his presidency, the idea of “conservative populism” was starting to sound redundant and "populist liberalism" like a contradiction in terms. Liberals were the ones sounding ambivalent about deciding issues respecting the size and scope of government in democratic forums when they might better be left to the judgment of responsible elites insulated from popular pressures.
Reagan made modern conservatism into a movement that was happy to fight its battles democratically. And liberals never quite regained their own democratic footing after he did.