Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Reagan Would Crush This Group

Steve Benen argues today that Ronald Reagan wouldn't be able to win the Republican nomination today, because today's GOP has swerved so far to the right that many of Reagan's policies (arms control treaties, raising the debt limit, tax increases, and more) would leave him as a moderate RINO. And he's right about the issues (and, indeed, Reagan frequently took hits from his right while in office; it was probably closely comparable to what Barack Obama receives from his left these days).

However, while a good piece of rhetoric, that sort of analysis mistakes, I think, the way that issues and ideology actually work. It's not that Ronald Reagan was seen as a conservative icon in 1980 and won the nomination because he rigorously held conservative positions on all issues; it's that Reagan won the nomination because he was a conservative icon, and people who thought of themselves as conservatives adopted his issue positions because he held them. That's easiest to see on taxes and budget deficits. Up until the late 1970s, standard conservative orthodoxy held that budget deficits were Bad Indeed -- and it wasn't just lip service. They actually cared about deficits, so much so that they opposed Democratic tax cuts and Democratic defense budget increases. When Reagan adopted supply-side policies, that all changed (despite the plain fact that Reagan did actually accept various tax increases), and tax cutting became the new conservative orthodoxy.

Of course, there are always dissenters, even when a Reagan-like figure happens to be around (Ted Kennedy played a similar role on the liberal side). But very little of that criticism from real ideologues filters down to rank-and-file voters, or to most of the more practical party actors. Unless, that is, they're looking for an excuse to distance themselves anyway.

What's happening now is twofold. First, in the absence of a Reagan-like figure, what counts as "conservative" is  up for grabs. And, at the same time, the particular set of presidential candidates in both the 2008 and 2012 cycles have reinforced the confusion, because all of them have entered the contests with serious blemishes on their record of adhering to conservative orthodoxy (other than a few safely conservative candidates, such as Rick Santorum this time around, who have other problems that keep them from being plausible nominees).

Since Reagan didn't have that problem, he'd mop the floor with this group. And in doing so he'd let the party know what being conservative meant, and pretty much everyone on the Republican side would go along with that.


  1. Hm. This sounds a little circular to me.

    Reagan was a conservative icon, so rank-and-file conservatives trusted him on policy decisions, even ones they might have otherwise opposed, like budget-busting tax cuts. I get that.

    But how did he become such a trusted icon in the first place? It wasn't due to his acting skills; it was because his policies (as governor) and his rhetoric (as candidate) appealed to GOP voters. Policies and rhetoric which, today, would lie far to the left of the GOP mainstream.

    I happen to agree with you that Reagan would have mopped the floor with the 2012 GOP hopefuls -- but only because he was a much better campaigner. He would have been able to run hard to the Tea Party right without a hint of lunacy (a la Perry) or hypocrisy (a la Romney).

    But make no mistake, if a Republican today had the same substantive record as Reagan, he would be labeled, as Benen puts it, "a tax-raising, amnesty-loving, pro-bailout, cut-and-run, big-government Democrat". And he would have no shot at the GOP nomination.

  2. I agree with Andrew.

    It seems to me that it is correct to say, as you did, that what counts as "conservative" is up for grabs today. A less polite, but 100% accurate, way of putting it is that conservatism no longer has any policy content-- it's a tribal affiliation, a lifestyle choice. GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and John Boehner supported Medicare Part D, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Keynesian stimulus, before deciding, once a Democrat was president, that these policies are unconstitutional tyranny. That's because conservatism is about having a side, not about policy or ideology. Being a Republican is more like being a Philadelphia Eagles fan than being a member of a conventional political party.

    But Benen too is, of course, correct, that anyone who supported Ronald Reagan because they agreed with his policy views has, by now, left the Republican Party.

    (Benen could have mentioned that in addition to his tax heresies, Reagan sat down to negotiate with Gorbachev, which prompted various conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, to compare him to Neville Chamberlain. Or that, after he left office, Reagan called for a UN standing army).

    You write that "Reagan didn't have that problem" of "enter[ing] the contests with serious blemishes on their record of adhering to conservative orthodoxy". But Benen is making a point about the evolving orthodoxy of the GOP. It seems to me that he is incontrovertibly correct. In 1996, you could have someone like Dick Lugar run for president as a Republican. That is unthinkable today.

  3. Jonathan, don't you usually caution against regarding the current crowd as dwarfs?

    Reagan led the party so far right (with much of the 'leading' continuing as momentum after he left the scene) that there's nowhere left to go but over a loony-cliff -- or back to the center. But the latter isn't going to happen until/unless a season comes in which the GOP gets creamed again -- we Dems missed our moment. Hence there can be no Reagan -- no one who can creatively and credibly lead the party in a new direction.

  4. "But how did he become such a trusted icon in the first place? It wasn't due to his acting skills; it was because his policies (as governor) and his rhetoric (as candidate) appealed to GOP voters."

    But how do we explain the fact that, overall, Reagan was always more popular--far more popular as I recall--than his policies were?

  5. "But how do we explain the fact that, overall, Reagan was always more popular--far more popular as I recall--than his policies were?"

    I didn't always agree with Reagan, but I always got the feeling that he truly believed in what he was saying - something he has in common with Obama, and something that I find lacking in most other contemporary politicians, left or right. People can sense sincerity, and they value it.

  6. @Scott: I think you're confusing primary voters with the general electorate. Jonathan's point is that Reagan was popular among the party rank-and-file and shaped their opinions on the issues. The polling showing that Reagan was personally more popular than his policy preferences was polling of the general electorate, mostly during his presidency.

  7. This discussion points to the basic problem with absurd hypotheticals. I don't think the "Reagan would be denounced as a RINO today" meme is meant to be taken literally. It's supposed to highlight that the GOP has moved far to the right of where they were in Reagan's day, even though today's Republicans insist on ignoring that fact and treating him as the ideal of everything they stand for. One of my favorite Onion pieces ever, "Zombie Reagan," captures this dynamic beautifully. If Reagan rose from the grave he could say "Long live Hugo Chavez" and Republicans would treat it as conservative gospel. But if he simply happened to have lived into his hundreds with his faculties intact and retained a voice in public life the whole time, the Republican attitudes toward him would be different than they are now. Reagan the Myth, something that was built up in the 1990s as he disappeared from public view in the wake of his Alzheimer's diagnosis, is just a lot better loved by Republicans than Reagan the Man ever was.

  8. It's always amusing and instructive to see the hardcore Left deconstruct conservatives, and conservative thought. It's pretty much a pointless exercise, but it's fun. ;-)

    Lemme help you all out. But first, a little political history on taxes. There's a great piece of video out there of Lloyd Bentsen circa 1978, speaking of this interesting new idea of "supply side economics", and how it could help the US escape the then economic doldrums. Now, you all may know that subsequently, Bentsen was forced to swallow leftist dogma re taxes, at least publicly, before being nominated on the D presidential ticket 10 years later. But basically, what Bentsen thought in 1978 proved out, in large measure. Some tweaks here and there since, as necessary, but the base blocks were in line, as he spotted out from the beginning.

    But the point is, supply side economics, although firmly entrenched in this country for over 30 years now, wasn't close to enactment when Reagan picked it up, and then signed it into law in 1981, after some 4 years of political squabble... bipartisan squabble. And even in the 1980 R primary, Poppy Bush called it "voodoo economics". It wasn't a "conservative" position... it was just a position.

    Today, yes, supply side economics is dogma across the political spectrum... to include Obama as we saw last December. But during Reagan's first speech in front of Congress, lefty Tip O'Neill leaned over whispering to Poppy and basically mocked Reagan, and said "You know this is all bullsh!t, George."

    But today, as in 1980, it's still just a position, not a "conservative" position. (SEE: OBAMA, BARRY). So yeah, the R candidates will carry that standard, and win. It's what's done within our body politic. The outliers on all this? Hardcore lefties. They are the ones who screech for tax increases, with a religious zeal. Everybody else speaks supply side, and tweaks as necessary, or the upcoming tax reform (executed around supply side principles, obviously, as per the 3 decades long political concensus).

    Now, yes, Obama has some tendencies towards redistributionism, but they aren't going anywhere, even with the D's, as we see.

    So today's R candidates aren't espousing anything that's not broadly practiced here and elsewhere (see Canada, and the UK's soon to come dropping of their own higher rates, and by a "Conservative" government that jacked VAT first thing and is at or to the Left of Obama, pay no attention to the party name).

    Supply side economics is just accepted, by all. Clinton cemented and expanded that, and Obama isn't changing it, especially as it appears he's gone in 14 months.

    Mr. Bernstein's point is correct, that what defines "conservative" at any point is ALWAYS up for grabs. Let there be politics. That's why it's amusing watching the Left try to define what conservatives are, because it's always gonna be a circus... and the blinkered could never characterize that circus.

  9. If you want to see how it plays out, it'll be something like this. Romney will get crucified for RomneyCare and wishy washiness. Perry will get crucified for his tax increases, and lesser ratings as a fiscal conservative than he's out preaching he is (D Joe Manchin wrecks Perry as a fiscal conservative, as we should all know, and so did Pawlenty). Perry loves illegal immigration. Romney loves global warming. All these guys have sins that will be attacked... as did Reagan and his voodoo economics.

    Today, with supply side economics firmly entrenched, I'd say that the voodoo economic battle centers around federal spending. Similar to the late 70's and supply side econ, federal spending is the place where the bipartisan squabbling is going on right now. Not on the hard Left of course, which wants more and more spending... but everywhere else. Sorta like with supply side... where the hard Left sat it out and took sides against, as today.

    Fierce partisans will always view their opposition through a screen... it's inevitable. But it's best to look at it as the middle is going to be looking at it, if possible. Right now, that spending is what the middle is looking at. And smart R candidates will follow that lead, as that's where a bipartisan critical mass seems to be headed. To do otherwise is "nuts".

    Now, I'm guessing Perry and Romney won't be as firebreathing as the Left fears on this spending business. Neither was Reagan over taxes, even though he believed in supply side. He was a good politician, and Perry/Romney will likely follow the same course. They'll adapt, same as Reagan. Neither is a leftist's caricature of a conservative troglodyte, which is how they painted Reagan then, too, as we know.

    Reagan wouldn't "mop the floor" with anything today. He'd be an ex governor of a large state, with a critical mass of support, finally succeeding in putting down an establishment challenger, then muddling through 2 terms, some failures, some successes, but generally hewing to simple, sensible policy. Fairy tales are fun, but they're only tales.


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