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Idea Lab

DLC | E-newsletter | May 28, 2010
The Republican Primaries and the End of Reaganism

The political-science account of a mid-term election is simplified but usually correct: the opposition party unites against the agenda of the party in power and develops a set of consensus alternative policies. But "unity" and "consensus" are hardly words to fit this year's Republicans. As "Tea Party" activists emerge as a guiding force in primary elections, bringing with them exotics like Kentucky senatorial hopeful Rand Paul, a series of mainstream Republican politicians are going down in primaries. Moderate Florida Governor Charlie Crist was expunged this spring over support for the Obama administration on fiscal stimulus; conservative Utah Senator Bob Bennett defenestrated for flirtations with bipartisanship on health care; the assault on John McCain in Arizona over immigration looks likely to fall short but has come closer than anyone would have guessed six months ago.

The standard explanation is a vaguely defined phenomenon called "anti-incumbency." But there is an alternate explanation as well, in a nascent intellectual battle within the conservative movement over the successor to Reaganism.

Three decades after the 40th president's inauguration, his grasp on conservative politics seems stronger than ever. Former Indiana Congressman Chris Chocola, an erstwhile militant of the 1995 "Republican Revolution" and now head of a Republican pressure group called the Club for Growth, provides a good sample. Asked, in an online debate with the DLC's Ed Gresser, sponsored by U.S. News and World Report, whether American political parties should demand "ideological purity" the ex.-Rep. explains the recent ill fortunes of Republicanism as the result of a foolish departure from Reaganism:

The Republican "'worldview' was summed up by Ronald Reagan more than 20 [sic] years ago: restraining government spending, pro-growth policies, tax reduction, sound national defense, and maximum individual liberty& Republicans lost in 2006 and 2008 because they didn't [fight for these principles.]"

The evasion provides clues to the events of this primary season. Republican political reverses in the last decade were, of course, the result of the record conservatives built in power rather than the consequence of an abstract failure to "fight." Without dwelling too much on the past, they included the launch of an eight-year war on a mistaken premise; the Katrina fiasco; and the slow growth and weak job creation, capped by financial disaster, following the Bush administration's tax plans of 2001 and 2003.

And despite Mr. Chocola's fervency, this record was not an anomalous drift away from Reaganite principles, but -- setting aside the Iraq war as a sui generis decision arising from 9/11 -- a largely faithful reproduction of them 25 years later. As the DLC observed six years ago in a generally appreciative reflection on Reagan's personality and presidency, his:

"effort to simultaneously slash taxes, boost defense spending, and balance the budget produced a mountain of public debt. The economic boom the country enjoyed in the mid-'80s was preceded and succeeded by deep recessions."

In the light of present circumstances, the events this formula helped set in motion have eerie familiarity. Large fiscal deficits came first, propelling a mid-decade Keynesian boom accompanied by rising trade and capital imbalances financed by Asian exporters; then came a wave of real-estate speculation on cheap credit, followed by a stock market crash, the savings-and-loans failures, and a recession.

The Bush administration's mix of spending shifts, high-bracket tax cuts, and deficits -- highlighted by Vice President Cheney's comment that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter" -- were a close copy of Reagan's formula. Its re-run of the experiment differed in only the particulars, with the main source of capital China rather than Japan, and the crashes coming in investment banks as well as real estate lenders. The end was the same, just on a larger scale.

Here is a plausible source of this year's conservative agony. Reaganism has vanquished all its rivals on the right. The consensus style of Eisenhower and Ford are long gone; the international focus of the elder Bush lacks followers. The small-town Republicanism of Dole is unexciting, the "bleeding-heart conservatism" of Kemp has vanished, and the paleo-conservatism of Buchanan commands some platoons of activists but alarms the general public. But though Reaganism remains unchallenged as dogma, the events of the last decade highlight its weakness as practical policy. There is no consensus among Republicans as to how it might be changed, or replaced -- but lots of conservatives hope to be the ones to decide.

In this light, only on the surface are this spring's events an "anti-incumbent" rebellion against politicians like Crist, Bennett, and McCain. Just beneath, they represent the semi-conscious recognition of the end of a long intellectual reign -- and the opening of a battle for the succession.


From the DLC --

Gresser vs. Chocola:

The DLC's 2004 reflection on the presidency and legacy of Ronald Reagan:

Two alternatives on the right-

1. Kevin Williamson, writing in the May edition of National Review -- argues that it is time for Republicans to accept the end of supply-side economics, and has some ideas for a new approach. Williamson points to the self-deception that supply-side economics' promises -- not only the Reagan program but its forerunner, California's Proposition 13 -- of lower tax rates, higher revenues, and self-cancelling deficits entail:

"Properly understood, there were no Reagan tax cuts. Looked at from the proper perspective, we haven't really had any tax cuts to speak of -- we've had tax deferrals ... [A] poorly applied supply-side analysis has infantilized Republicans when it comes to the budget. They love to cut taxes but cannot bring themselves to cut spending: It's eat dessert first and leave the spinach on the table. There is some evidence that this is both bad politics and bad policy."

His solution is a revival of real fiscal conservatism in two phases: "One, abjure magical thinking about tax cuts. Two, develop a rhetoric in which "spending" and "taxes" are synonyms, so a federal budget with $1 trillion in new spending means $1 trillion in new taxes -- levies on Americans today or on our children tomorrow, with interest."

2. Meanwhile, "Tea Party" activists rewrite the Maine Republican party platform:

And the first disillusioned conservative --

David Frum, in his 1993 Dead Right, examines Reaganism and the various strands of conservative politics: