Democrats like to point the supposed drift towards extremism in the GOP by claiming Reagan, the figurehead of the conservative resurgence, could not get elected in the party he so influenced.
They, of course, mean this as a pejorative slam, but is there any truth in it? And, if so, is this a good thing?
First, Ronald Reagan the rhetorician needs to be separated from Ronald Reagan the president. Oratory exists in a theoretical world. Democratic governance exists in reality. The former promotes intellectual purity; the latter ridicules it. Balancing the two generally leaves a schizophrenic record. It’s why Reagan blasted economic protectionism, labeling it “destructionism,” then instituted sweeping tariffs, including a 100% tariff on Japanese electronics in 1987.
Reagan the master politician, famous for working with liberal Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, certainly could still win an election. But it is likely that his tendency towards moderation in policy would make him unpopular. After all, Reagan did sign the Simpson-Mazzoli Act which created a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
Much like modern GOP leadership, Reagan brokered the deal because he was promised increased border security, which never occurred, leading in part to today’s very similar issue.
The bill was not popular at the time, but the fury of the scorned base is nothing like what exists today. Though Marco Rubio publicly repudiated the final legislation proposed by the Gang of Eight, passed by the Senate and not yet brought up for a vote in the House, he has been blackballed by conservatives.
And the culture of compromise which has led to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell caving on countless issues- the “CRomnibus,” DHS funding, sequestration, the fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, etc.- has in part led to an atmosphere of low efficacy and voter outrage that is buoying Donald Trump.
Trump, whose supposedly conservative immigration policy paper relies on tariffs- a measure antithetical to free market economic machinations- has also recently refused to rule out high income taxes on high earners and spoken admirably of single payer healthcare in Canada and Scotland.
But, he “says it like it is.” Rhetoric- the staying power of Ronald Reagan. Americans, and conservatives in particular, like bold thought that is concerned with perceived truth not the outrage it may invoke. Unabashed bluntness has never waned as a quality desired in candidates. It has always been scarce, and is scarcer now than three decades ago.
The inaction in the face of burgeoning threats, both from very real enemies and simple political fecklessness, leave voters craving for words of affirmation and empowerment, words like: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.”
Reagan the rhetorician has always been loved and Reagan the politician, though his record is spotty and would draw ire from some, still has a home in today’s GOP.
The real tension exists in Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment. Republicans should not speak ill of other Republicans. Divisiveness and infighting weaken the party, drawing the focus from policy to pettiness of character. This was akin to a moral law for Reagan.
Obviously, when Ted Cruz is drawing ire for calling Mitch McConnell a liar and McConnell is trying to sabotage other members of his party for sticking to their campaign promises, it is no longer an enforced law.
But this is neither a slam on Reagan nor the GOP. Today is a different era. Though Reagan faced as many policy shortcomings left in the tidal-wave like wake of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the real exigent threat to the country came from the threat of communism engulfing the world. American politicians needed to present a united front on the international stage to have a strong presence.
Today, America faces terrorist threats, but economic malaise and civil unrest are a a lot closer to home, and therefore a lot more pressing. America is a republic for a reason: the legislative process slows government and stops bad laws from passing. At least in theory. But the corruption of this process, and the constant inadequacy of incumbent politicians in dealing with it, has led to the current crisis. It is no longer join or die. It is join and die. Loyalty must be to ideas, not party. And Reagan would have understood this subtle nuance.