I recently read a diary here on RedState by Myra Adams entitled “Can Any Republican Win 270 Electoral Votes in 2016 (Or Ever Again)? While I agreed with some of her conclusions and disagreed with some, it got me thinking about where we are as a party, and how do we get that magic 270 votes? I believe that it comes down to the Republican party wasting and destroying the legacy of Ronald Reagan. There are many cooks in the pot regarding this, but I believe that the Ronald Reagan looked at warts and all (instead of his polished romanticized version that Republican politicians evoke a la the democrats and JFK), is the key to regaining electoral success. And the time between his time in office and now must be taken into account.
The mess we are in as a party has a few culprits. They are: a total lack of the wrong principles in many of our party officials, the fact that history has advanced since Reagan’s day and lessons have been learned, and that we have forgotten the proper way we should compromise.
In my first point we have the fact that there has always been tension in the republican party between conservatives and the “country club” set. This plays out in different ways, but it is why the Republican party can spawn a Reagan as well as a Joe Scarborough. As time has gone on, the country club side has become more liberal. But this is a trend that has been happening for years. Much of the upper class has moved to the left. That is why you have some republicans who drift left as they go to Washington. They are acting on principles, but they are not conservative principles. The current tension in the party today comes from using conservative principles to get elected and then jettisoning them once the election is over.
Keep in mind, until Reagan, we really didn’t have a conservative president for many years. Eisenhower when he ran, maintained the New Deal programs instead of trying to dismantle them. That was because he was friendly with many democrats. Obviously since he was the supreme commander of the armed forces under Roosevelt, he did have a connection with him and may not have wanted to take Roosevelt’s legacy apart. His VP Nixon did several non-conservative things. Price controls and the EPA come to mind.
There was a great deal of timing and luck as to when Reagan came onto the scene. The republican party was in a really weak and damaged position in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Does it sound something like the Republican party today? But he was able to bring the party back from the abyss, and in time make it a formidable force in American politics again.
He was in many ways the Model T of conservatives. People may have known what conservatism was, but it was either undefined by people who believed it, or it was far too academic to try to explain. What he did was open conservative principles to the masses. By reaching over the media to the American people, people heard our principles unedited, instead of through the left-leaning media. No republican has since been able to do that end-round. The result was a 49 state landslide in 1984.
But it is important to remember that Reagan was in office 30 years ago. Much has changed in the world to be sure. However Bob Dole is dead wrong. Reagan if he was running today, would easily fit into the Republican party. Not only would he be influential, but he would be a powerful leader and advocate. He would have loved the Tea Party and the resurgence of the right making it’s weight known. This is because he was principled.
Ronald Reagan was not perfect. No politician is. There were mistakes made in his administration. The 1986 immigration reform, and the nomination of Sandra Day O’conner and Anthony Kennedy are but a few glaring examples. These were mistakes in hindsight to be sure, but he did not have the luxury of looking over the next 30 years to see the results of his decisions. But we as a movement have. In 2013 we have a track record and have learned lessons about how to pursue our agenda. As a result, we now demand and scrutinize our justice nominations more, demanding proven conservatives. Not that we are perfect (John Roberts anybody?), but we now know what to aim for to hold our side accountable. Immigration reform was a lesson as well. Since the amnesty was the only provision enforced, many do not support the immigration bill because there is no faith that the new one will be either. If Reagan knew where these decisions would lead, I believe he would have acted differently. I can confidently say that because of his principles, which he communicated and explained often.
His time in office, and the example he set lead to more and more Republican successes. The 2000s I believe were the culmination of Reagan’s time in office. Laying the way for conservative dominance. But that time was squandered with things like “no child left behind” and Medicare Part D. What we learned from that was that we need politicians that can effectively communicate conservatism as being superior over liberalism, but they also need to put their money where their mouth is and enact conservative legislation. With a house and senate and presidency in our grasp, we implemented Medicare part D. With Obama and his party in control of government, we got Obamacare shoved down our throats. There isn’t much of an ideological difference between the two programs. Sure Part D was written probably better than most other entitlements, but a Republican had no business passing it. We need people with a track record of conservatism. Not because of ideological purity, but because we have been tricked by our side before.
Another key to Reagan’s success was compromise. He compromised all the time. It isn’t a dirty word. Compromise doesn’t sell out your principles if it is done right. Reagan however, compromised on his terms. Getting 100% of what you want is impossible in a democracy. However, a reasonable goal is to compromise less than your counterparts. A more recent example is George W. Bush and his tax cuts. He was out there pushing a cut of 1.6 trillion. What he got was 1.3 trillion. Not 100%, but not bad either. You can’t compromise on principle, but there is no guarantee that your principles will get you 100% of what you want. But if you can get 80% of what you want when the democrats get 20%, that is a decent compromise to me. Another lesson is that you can’t compromise on experience. Again the 1986 amnesty resulted in a huge growth of illegal aliens as well as a glut of New Democratic voters. If we compromise on the 2013 immigration bills it would be a mistake. This is because we have not only a track record of officials not enforcing the law, but no substantial proof that this new crop of elected officials will enforce it either.
I believe that the Republican Party has got some hard truths to learn before we get 270 electors again. But some lessons should be obvious. We have learned that moderation and the middle ground does not work to get us elected. Bold colors are needed to paraphrase Reagan. And we learned that conservatism needs to be proven and explained. Reagan signed abortion laws into effect during his time as governor of California. This should have not only dis-qualified him as a candidate for president, but he should have been drummed out of the Republican party. Reagan did change his mind on abortion. But where Bob Dole thinks that Reagan couldn’t fit into the party because of those laws, he forgets Reagan’s track record after his time in office. A track record where he was communicating very clearly why he had changed his position and now had a pro-life belief and principle. People believed him. But you need to truly change your mind, for what Reagan did to work. You can’t fake principles. Mitt Romney had a similar experience as Reagan. Governing a liberal state as a republican, his positions were questionable at best. But Romney couldn’t or wouldn’t expand on why he changed his positions. He couldn’t genuinely sell why he changed his mind on Romneycare. He didn’t convincingly explain his flip-flop on abortion. Possibly because he couldn’t communicate it well. But more likely because he changed his position to get elected. Conservatives know our own. They can smell an imposer a mile away.
I believe that success for the Republican party is possible. You just need to know as voters what to look for. Reagan never stood on anybody’s shoulders to help prove his conservative credentials. But Reagan was in office 30 years ago. The fact that there is nobody since that our party can use and an example of a conservative, should speak volumes. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t anything wrong with evoking Reagan. People running for office do it all the time, calling on the greats, trying to link to their legacies (who doesn’t speak about Lincoln at least once running for president). But if you need to use their principles to hide yours, then you shouldn’t be in office as a Republican.
Reagan understood principle, that is why he would be in the party today. The tea-party and other people on the right who the elites think are fighting for ideological purity, are really just demanding that the principles you run on, are the principles you live and govern by. Reagan being Reagan, I think he would fit in fine.