Tear down this icon: Why the GOP has to get over Ronald Reagan. By Jennifer Rubin. Washington Post, April 25, 2013.
It Won’t Be Your Father’s GOP. By Jennifer Rubin. NJBR, March 24, 2013, with related articles.
Republicans Recognize Their Party in Peril. By Peter Wehner. NJBR, March 24, 2013, with related articles.
unfailing reverence on the American right for Ronald Reagan is understandable.
He was the only exemplar of modern conservatism to win the White House, and
unlike liberal icons such as Roosevelt or Johnson or Obama, he presided over an
economic boom and became beloved by voters not normally drawn to his party. No
wonder that Reagan, long before his death in 2004, attained mythical status in
the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
that myth has become a burden for the modern GOP. It has bound Reagan’s
followers on the right to policies and positions that were time-specific. The
old guard has become convinced that Reagan’s solutions to the problems of his
time were the essence of conservatism — not simply conservative ideas
appropriate for that era.
Republican Party, however, faces legions of voters and candidates who came of
age politically after Reagan’s eight years in office. An entire generation
recalls him vaguely as a genial, optimistic president who stood up for America
in the Cold War.
Republican Party can remain a Ronald Reagan historical society, or it can try
to endure as a force in national politics. But it can’t do both. The choice
matters greatly, for there is no guarantee that the GOP will retain its ability
to win national elections or that conservatism has a future as a national
Republican Party may survive, but only if its politicians, activists, donors
and intellectuals rethink modern conservatism and find new issues to defend and
new arguments with which to defend them. The public face of the GOP can no
longer be aging, ill-tempered Reaganites such as John McCain and Jim DeMint but
must give way to a diverse, media-savvy generation that understands the America
we actually live in. Only then can the essence of conservatism — the promotion
of personal liberty — survive, and the GOP along with it.
winning everything imaginable in off-years,” Republican National Committee
Chairman Reince Priebus told me recently. “The governors are still going
strong. We’re winning the war in issue-driven races.” However, he conceded that
Republicans have lost their ability to connect with average Americans in the
wider electorate: “We are not relating to people at an emotional level.”
2012 presidential election should have been an opportunity to make that
connection. The party seemed to have everything it needed in its nominee: an
intelligent and experienced candidate with a tax-cutting agenda, a defense of
traditional values, a commitment to maintain U.S. supremacy in the world — and
an adoring wife, too. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney seemed to be campaigning for
the 1980 election, with attacks on welfare recipients and promises of greater
defense spending and getting government off our backs.
months since Romney’s defeat, there has been a great deal of angst about the
party’s future. Some Republicans, such as Karl Rove and his American Crossroads
super PAC, are certain that the GOP has a personnel problem and are determined
to weed out self-destructive candidates. But the problems are more serious than
simply who is winning primary races. This is not a matter of individually
competent candidates but of the GOP’s outdated worldview.
after Obama’s reelection, Reagan-era conservatives have scorned any challenge
to the party’s status quo, conducting search-and-destroy missions against
ideological deviations from the Reagan playbook.
the top sliver of the Bush-era tax cuts expired, tax increases could not be
part of a budget because, as we know, Republicans are opposed to taxes.
Same-sex marriage must be opposed, because Republicans defend “traditional
marriage.” And despite Reagan’s spearheading of immigration reform in 1986,
Republicans have to oppose that, too, because they were the party of law and
fact, these “conservative” positions are not necessarily conservative; they are
part of an effort to avert the party’s eyes from the dramatic economic, social,
demographic and cultural changes that have taken place over the past 30 years.
They confuse the Reagan-era expression of conservatism with conservatism
itself. In clinging to it three decades later, the Republican Party has become
not conservative but reactionary.
Sen. DeMint (R-S.C.)decamped in January from Congress to a venerated
conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, it was not to foster
intellectual dialogue, innovation or self-examination. It was to be louder and
more resolute on principles that voters had rejected in two national elections.
Now DeMint fights innovation on immigration reform, same-sex marriage, economic
policy and anything else that could propel the party out of the 1980s. He
insists that the GOP’s problem is simply bad marketing. “Conservative policies
have proved their worth time and time again,” he wrote in The Washington Post in January. “If we’re not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are
doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our
message to communicate more effectively.”
irony could not be greater. In the 1980s, Heritage sought to adapt conservative
philosophy into a template for governing, fortifying the Reagan administration
with an ideological framework and policy directives. It also cast conservative
think tanks not merely as idea factories for Republican administrations but as
critics of and commentators on GOP policies. Today, by contrast, Heritage is
helping insulate the party from heretics and cement an agenda it advanced 30
Obama’s first term, defenders of the traditional GOP — tea party leaders,
conservative PACs, right-wing blogs, radio talk-show hosts and the candidates
they inspired and supported — generated enormous excitement and emphasized the
party’s roots in fiscal conservatism. However, together with veterans of the
Reagan years, they also popularized more strident language (vilifying same-sex
marriage and labeling the president a “socialist”) and inflexible commitments
(balance the budget in 10 years, or how about five!), making it tougher for
even skilled candidates to win outside of staunchly conservative states.
not all Republicans are trapped in a time warp. On the other side of this
battle within conservatism is a generation of leaders who emerged decades after
Reagan left office: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker,
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.),
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
are problem-solvers and party-builders, not groundskeepers for a Reagan
monument. They go back to conservatism’s pre-Reagan roots — to the writings of
Edmund Burke, to the domestic neoconservative reformers of the 1960s and to
Jack Kemp, who saw impoverished Americans as the property owners of tomorrow
and capitalism as the great poverty antidote of modern times.
they are not having an easy time of it. McDonnell, a conservative favorite for
his first three years in office, has been under siege in recent months for what
national conservatives label heresy: a plan to solve Virginia’s historic
transportation problems by, among other things, raising the sales tax. The plan
and the governor remain popular in the Old Dominion. But outside Virginia, bastions
of conservative orthodoxy recoiled in horror, the right-wing blog Red State
dubbed him “pathetic” and “the worst kind of Republican,” and a host of others
declared that McDonnell had blown his 2016 prospects.
after being blasted by the old guard, McDonnell would tell the audience at a
National Review Institute gathering that Republicans needed to not merely “talk
about abstract principles . . . [but]
to connect our principles to policies that improve voters’ daily lives.” That attitude put him on the “do not invite” list for the
creakiest of conservative gaggles, the Conservative Political Action
battle for conservatism is not some theoretical exercise; it has already been
joined. On the defeated gun legislation, immigration reform and same-sex
marriage, and in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, defenders of Republican
orthodoxy have fought advocates of innovative conservative governance. On
immigration, we see Rubio taking on DeMint, his former mentor. We see Sen. Rob
Portman (R-Ohio) endorsing gay marriage while social conservatives threaten to bolt the party. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) fought back against hard-liners
deploring any deal on the fiscal cliff.
fate of the party will be decided in the fight between those few who are
determined to revive and rejuvenate conservatism and those who see such efforts
as “selling out,” between those who would drag the party into the 21st century
and those who would pull it back into the older, white, conservative enclaves
that don’t care much for modernity. The new vanguard’s effort to redefine their
party is the real story of the post-2012 GOP, and its only hope for survival.
while leadership must first be sober and defend conservative principles, it
must also be relatable. Conservatives have come to deplore the role of
personality in politics, scoffing at celebrity candidates. This is deeply
misguided. Of course, we don’t want blank-slate politicians, but we do need
standard-bearers who can instigate a conservative revival. Policy without a
politician is a dissertation. Conservatism without a candidate of character,
charm and intelligence is reduced to a debating society.
is no longer Reagan’s America, and the world is no longer fighting the Cold
War. A successful political party must not just acknowledge new realities but
adjust to them, even embrace them.
spoke admiringly of our federalist system — no doubt because of his experience
running California as a fiscal conservative — but as president, he never
managed to devolve significant power to the states, in part because state
leadership was not always up to the task. Today, the states are among our
best-run political entities, in large part because a majority are run by
Republican governors. Leaders such as Christie, Jindal, McDonnell and Walker
have implemented school reform, made innovations in health care and
restructured pensions while making their states more business-friendly.
conservative movement that embraces federalism on everything from Medicaid
reform — in the form of block grants — to marriage is one that can both address
the federal government’s fiscal woes and sidestep the conflict between social
conservatives and libertarians. For those who fancy themselves constitutional
conservatives and for those who want to pursue a social agenda out of tune with
the country as a whole, federalism is more than a safety valve — it is an
essential component of good governance.
addition, if the GOP is to have a raison d’etre, it must be to offer a vision
in which the American economy is not crushed by debt, regulation and the other
dead weight of the liberal welfare state. Whether it is school choice or
functioning health-care markets (in lieu of Obamacare), Republicans who offer a
good dose of free-market discipline and personal choice in education,
retirement planning and health care provide an alternative to the Western
European dilemma — a feeble economy weighed down by an obese public sector.
in this endeavor Republicans should recognize that America will not return to
the pre-New Deal era. Limited government, not small government, must be the
aim. That requires low taxes, not taxes that never increase. It requires modest
regulation, but some regulation. And it acknowledges that the electorate expects
government to solve problems, not merely stand aside.
George W. Bush, so roundly criticized by conservatives as he left office, is
instructive here. His compassionate conservatism, success in attracting
Hispanic voters and education and Medicare reforms are akin to the approaches
that the new generation of conservatives favor. No wonder Bush is making
something of a comeback — after two presidential defeats, a softer-edge
conservatism with concern for the middle class and the poor is coming back into
modern GOP must also incorporate the national security lessons of the past 30
years, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. That means adapting to the
new face of jihadism — often radicalized individuals rather than al-Qaeda
leaders. It means showing some common sense in intelligence-gathering but
understanding that we cannot label every American who goes astray as an enemy
combatant. In forging a worldview that is economically and politically
sustainable, Republicans must align foreign policy with America’s
self-interest, demonstrating that a world devoid of U.S. leadership is more
dangerous, less prosperous and more repellant in its disregard for human
building blocks of a 21st-century recovery for the right — federalism, free
markets to create prosperity and preserve the safety net, and an updated
foreign policy based on our experience of the past three decades — are at their
core conservative. They embrace liberty as the highest value and aim to
constrain federal power to promote and enhance freedom. Conservatism by its
very nature must be empirical, informed by experience and respectful of
mediating institutions, including local governments, religious institutions and
succeed, the leaders of this New Right — more eclectic, more contemporary on
cultural debates and more confident in their ability to redefine conservatism,
more willing to step away from the Reagan hymnal — will shape the movement for
the near future. And in so doing, they can demonstrate that conservatism is not
bound to a single place or time or challenge but, like the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution, is timeless and the highest expression of