You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Still His Party

Why the GOP can't get over Reagan.

The quest to venerate Ronald Reagan began ignominiously. In the early '90s, conservatives set out to convey Reagan's greatness to future generations by constructing a gleaming new government building in downtown Washington, D.C. But plans for the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center went comically wrong. Construction ran hundreds of millions of dollars and several years over budget, and, once completed in 1998, the building was so manifestly useless that federal agencies had to be coaxed to move into it. Liberals snickered that the trade center was a perfect metaphor for the bloated deficits they saw as Reagan's real legacy.

Humiliated by the debacle, Reagan's acolytes set out in search of a more suitable monument to their hero. In 1997, Grover Norquist--a business lobbyist and GOP strategist--created the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project to campaign for memorials to the Gipper. As its first task, the group proposed renaming Washington National Airport. Outside the conservative movement, the notion was met with ridicule and disbelief. But Republicans in Congress, politically frustrated and torn asunder by internecine strife, rallied to the cause. Astonishingly, the renaming was enacted less than a year after it was conceived. Michael Kamburowski, the debonair Australian whom Norquist tapped to head the Reagan project, recalls, "The airport thing happened very, very quickly, even more quickly than we expected."

The success only whetted Kamburowski's appetite. In the summer of 1997, he declared that there should be some significant public work named after Reagan in each of the 50 states. The legacy project has already claimed the places most directly linked to the great man's life. Last year, a train station in Des Moines, Iowa, installed a bronze plaque commemorating the spot where the young Reagan left his job as a radio announcer to set out for Hollywood. His hometown of Dixon, Illinois, plans a 92-mile Reagan Trail in addition to two new statues--one of them depicting a muscular young Reagan in a swimsuit, overlooking the park where he worked as a lifeguard. There will also be a six-foot portrait, made of jelly beans, of the former president.

But now even the 50-state goal has been deemed too modest, and the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project has resolved that a monument of some sort should stand in each of America's 3,054 counties. "It doesn't matter if it's a street or a courthouse or a school," Kamburowski explains. A turnpike in Florida, a forthcoming nuclear aircraft carrier, and several other, more modest public properties have already been christened. Matt Salmon, a Republican congressman from Arizona, has proposed chiseling Reagan's visage on Mount Rushmore. Norquist, meanwhile, is taking the project global, lobbying Eastern European governments to name public squares after Reagan to commemorate his winning the cold war.

Norquist and Kamburowski's campaign is only the most concrete manifestation of a reflexive Reagan worship that has permeated every crevice of the conservative movement. As the Republican Party convenes this week in Philadelphia--where paeans to the Gipper will no doubt echo from the rafters once more--it is more seized by adoration of Reagan than it was even at the height of his presidency. On the pages of today's conservative press, Reagan remains not only a frequent presence but an omniscient figure. One conservative columnist urges Republicans to "reteach the lessons of Ronald Reagan to a new generation." Another writes that "it is optimistic visionaries who succeed, pessimists who fail. Mr. Reagan taught us that." When conservatives fear they are on the brink of failure, it is Reagan whom they summon to stiffen their ideological resolve. "You could conclude that [Steve] Forbes's withdrawal proves that the basic idea of a coalition of social conservatives and economic conservatives, oriented toward liberty, is dead," the National Review editorialized this year, "But that's not the lesson Ronald Reagan drew." To associate an idea with Reagan is axiomatically to establish its truth.

The Reagan presidency lives on in conservative mythology as a bygone utopia peopled by titans against whom the mortals of today must be measured. As conservative writer David Frum observed in his 1994 lament, Dead Right, "Post-Bush conservatives look back on the accomplishments of the early Reagan years the way seventh-century Romans must have looked at their aqueducts: to think that we once built all this!" When conservatives debate the Reagan legacy, it is not to dispute its merits but to lay competing claims to its mantle. Witness this year's intraconservative debate over expanding trade with China. Proponents of permanent normal trading relations pointed to Reagan's support for free trade; opponents invoked his anti-communism. Had someone dug up a forgotten diary entry laying out Reagan's position for such a future contingency, it might have settled the argument then and there. The premise underlying such debates was explicated by Reagan hagiographer Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote that "the right simply needs to approach public policy questions by asking: What would Reagan have done?"

And therein lies the problem. Once it is agreed that all wisdom resides in the canon of Reagan, then the hard work of debate and self-examination and incorporating new facts is no longer necessary. On economics, defense, and morality, the Republican Party has refused to adapt itself to a patently changed political landscape for fear of acknowledging that the old ideas--the Reagan ideas--no longer work. And those who have tried to adapt have been cast out as heretics--anti-Reagan and therefore anti-conservative or even anti-Republican. When Ronald Reagan was actually president, Republicans prided themselves on being "the party of ideas." Now, as their hero fades into the twilight, his memory sits at the heart of a deep intellectual ossification.

The trouble with deification is that it makes life hard for the deity's successors. The most prominent victim of the Reagan myth has been George Bush père. By the time he took office, public anxiety about the budget deficit had reached fever pitch. Many economists warned that unless the federal government took strong action, the financial markets would lose faith in the American economy, and it would spiral into deep recession. So in 1990 Bush, having vowed two years before not to raise taxes in an effort to convince skeptical conservatives that he was Reagan's true ideological successor, broke his word. The minute he did so, conservatives cried betrayal. Almost two-thirds of the Republicans in Congress deserted the budget deal that Bush's capitulation secured, and The Wall Street Journal thunderously renounced any association with the subsequent performance of the economy. (In recent years the paper has reclaimed it.)

Bush, of course, went on to lose the 1992 election. The conventional interpretation of his defeat was that he appeared passive in the face of a weak economy. But conservatives knew this could not be true. Bush must have lost because he forsook the lessons of his predecessor. P.J. O'Rourke, speaking at the first large conservative gathering after the election, offered the right's interpretation. "We didn't lose this election," he insisted. "Some people whose politics we can sort of tolerate lost this election." This account allowed conservatives to believe what all ideologues would like to believe: Their party lost not because it was too extreme but because it wasn't extreme enough. In hindsight, Bush's other apostasies grew in scale. He had failed to spend the political capital accumulated after the Gulf war. One of his Supreme Court nominees, David Souter, turned out to be a moderate. And so, in the conservative cosmology, Bush was enshrined as the anti-Reagan, a symbol of betrayal and defeat.

Seeking to avoid Bush's fate, 1996 presidential nominee Bob Dole pitiably promised the Republican National Committee, "I'll be another Ronald Reagan, if that's what you want." And, when Dole embraced a Reagan-style across-the-board tax cut, former Reagan economic adviser Martin Anderson gave him the highest praise. "Dole," Anderson declared, "is not afraid of copying the things Reagan did well." Dole hewed as closely as possible to the Reagan template, portraying his tax cut as a cure for the economic malaise of the Democratic incumbent. He even coined a phrase--"the Clinton crunch"--to link his opponent to Carterite stagflation. But in 1996, unlike 1980, economic malaise was not widespread, and what little existed certainly wasn't linked to anger at excessive taxation. (Dole's own polls showed taxes absent from the first tier of voter concerns.) Instead, there was a general satisfaction with the economy and a desire that government not do anything to destabilize it--with instability closely linked in the public mind to renewed budget deficits. The Clinton administration grasped this completely, flogging Dole endlessly for his "risky tax scheme."

As in 1992, the Republican lost. And, as in 1992, conservatives pinned the defeat on the candidate's failure to be sufficiently Reaganesque. "Mr. Dole's across-the-board tax cut plan failed to catch on because, unlike Ronald Reagan, he did not have any credibility as a tax cutter," noted the conservative Washington Times, summing up the consensus among the faithful. Once again, deviation was to blame for the GOP's defeat, and defeat itself was evidence of deviation.

One might have thought George W. Bush would have already endured a similar fate. What, after all, could be a clearer repudiation of the Reagan gospel than "compassionate conservatism"? But the Reaganites have not scorned the Texas governor; they have embraced him. And with good reason. While Bush projects moderation to the public, he has sent an entirely different--and truer--message to the right. He has repudiated Reagan's betrayers, chief among them his father, while adhering as closely as possible to the tenets of the great man himself.

Over the course of 1999, Bush carefully established his Reaganite bona fides with a series of cues and gestures that largely escaped detection by the mainstream press but were freighted with unmistakable meaning within the conservative subculture. In a written answer to a query from Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, W. stated that his favorite Supreme Court justice was Reagan appointee Antonin Scalia, not Bush appointee Clarence Thomas. Barnes read this as highly significant, also noting that "Bush is not an admirer of his father's other nominee, David Souter." The Texas governor's November foreign policy speech, conservatives happily pointed out, took place at the Reagan library, not the Bush library, and mentioned Reagan's name six times, compared to just one passing reference to the candidate's father. "The Texas Republican is sending a message," wrote conservative columnist Cal Thomas. "A George W. Bush presidency, he signaled, will be Reagan III, not Bush II."

In a December interview with influential Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley, the Texas governor endorsed virtually the entire conservative litany against his father. Bush told Bartley that his father's broken pledge on taxes "destabilized his base," costing him the election. "I don't think he properly spent the political capital coming out of the Gulf war," W. added. He practically apologized for not going further in denouncing his father. "Forget politics; he's a fabulous man, and a great father and a great husband," he explained. "So you've got to understand a little bit about me." The newspaper, impressed, editorialized that Bush's tax cut "moves in the Reagan direction" and noted with satisfaction that "when the governor first assembled his economic team, he told them to notice the absence of Dick Darman"--the Bush administration moderate most despised by the right.

With Bush's suspect lineage cleared up, the right focused on the eerie parallels: here was a popular, genial Sun Belt governor not overly burdened by the details of governance. Bush's compassionate rhetoric, which the mainstream press interpreted as evidence of moderation, was seen on the right as yet more proof that he had captured the Gipper's style. Reagan, as one of W.'s advisers pointed out, had spoken of a "compassionate America." He had campaigned in the South Bronx and held his first nominating convention in Detroit--the most heavily black and unionized city in America--with the explicit hope of winning over Democratic constituents. "Contrary to the national media's loopy, knee-jerk spin," reported Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, "Mr. Bush's critique of his party was not an effort to distance himself from the GOP, but a clarion call to return to the inclusive, optimistic rhetoric, themes, and policies that Ronald Reagan championed throughout his presidency."

Had bush not convinced conservatives of his Reaganism, it is quite possible he would have lost the primary--because he ran against the first serious GOP presidential contender in a generation to acknowledge that the Reagan legacy is no longer an adequate guide to today's problems.

John McCain was unquestionably right. Whatever one thinks of Reagan, conditions in the country were vastly better-suited to his ideals 20 years ago than they are today. Reaganomics may have been fallacious, but it was born in fertile soil. In 1980 marginal tax rates reached 70 percent. This meant that workers at the highest end of the income spectrum, unless they hid their income in a tax shelter, could keep only 30 cents of every additional dollar they earned. You didn't have to be a supply-sider to believe that, in a stagnant economy, these rates depressed the entrepreneurial vigor of the business class.

But, by the '90s, tax rates were down and concern about the deficit was up--undermining both the economic and political rationales for tax-cutting. McCain grasped this reality and reacted accordingly. Running for president at a time when the top marginal tax rate had fallen by almost 50 percent from what it was in 1980 and when, even more than in 1996, Americans seemed sold on fiscal discipline and unnerved by the prospect of dramatic tax cuts, McCain refused to walk the plank that Dole had walked four years before. In New Hampshire, he attacked Bush's huge tax cut proposal and called for paying down the debt to save Social Security instead. This deviation from Reaganism was at least part of the reason he attracted the support of large numbers of independents and moderate Democrats. McCain said he was re-creating the Reagan coalition, but he was doing so by eschewing the Reagan orthodoxy that had been tying Republican presidential candidates in an electoral straitjacket for close to a decade.

In South Carolina, McCain extended the heresy from economic policy to social issues, arguing that the political compact Reagan had entered into with the Christian right was no longer serving the GOP well. And he was right. It no longer worked because social conditions, like economic conditions, had changed radically since the early '80s. A key reason Reagan's cultural conservatism pried away a chunk of the Democratic coalition was that an interrelated cluster of social pathologies had risen virtually unchecked for the previous decade. Crime, out-of-wedlock birth, abortion, divorce, and drug use had all exploded in the 1970s. What's more, liberals had not yet admitted that the Great Society may have contributed to these problems. The notion that welfare could breed dependency was still considered taboo among most Democrats, which offered an opening for Reagan's moralism.

By the late '90s, however, the social indicators that had so vexed Americans had reversed themselves. The homicide rate had dropped from just over 10 killings per 100,000 people in 1980 to just over 6 two years ago. Divorce rates had dropped from 23 per 1,000 married women to 19.5. Welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, and drug abuse were also down. And, just as importantly, the Clintonized Democratic Party had co-opted the most serious (or, at least, most popular) elements of the 1960s backlash--with moralistic language about family and faith and harsh talk about crime. The Democrats' support for welfare reform, school uniforms, the death penalty, and other socially conservative policies closed the cultural wedge that Reagan had so effectively exploited.

The vastly improved cultural climate made the Christian right's ever-direr forecasts of moral collapse seem shrill and irrational. And the Democratic Party's co-optation of GOP cultural traditionalism left the Republicans, and their Christian-right allies, increasingly associated with issues, including abortion and creationism, on which they appeared intolerant or loony or both. McCain called on his party to cut its ties to the Christian right, or at least to several of its most prominent leaders. And, as on economics, his deviation from Reaganism won him enormous support among general-election voters and loathing among the GOP's base. He was, they were convinced, not a real conservative. Which really meant that he had abandoned Ronald Reagan.

W., by contrast, hewed to the Reagan line. In the battle against McCain, he vigorously defended his vast tax cut proposal and the GOP's alliance with the Christian right. And core Republican voters backed him in record numbers. But Bush will pay a price for his compliance. The primaries forced him onto the losing side of most of the issues about which voters truly care. He may still win through sheer personality and campaign style. But the need to adhere to Reaganism in the face of conditions that make it obsolete will continually lead him to advocate unpopular or incoherent policies.

Take Bush's, and the GOP's, stance on foreign affairs. W. wants to ratchet up spending on defense, which is the Reaganite view. But Reagan's increase had a strong and consistent rationale. When Reagan proposed a defense buildup, Soviet power was on the rise. In the '70s, countries all over the Third World--from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, from Vietnam to Angola--had turned Communist. What's more, even prominent Democrats, like Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, recognized that the military had hollowed since the '70s and that Vietnam had left large swaths of the liberal intelligentsia isolationist and reflexively hostile to the American military.

But what is the rationale for more defense spending today? Reagan built up the Pentagon to pursue a more aggressive military posture abroad. As commander-in-chief, he deployed Pershing missiles in Western Europe and military advisers in El Salvador. Bush wraps himself in the mystique of Reagan's buildup, promising to "restore the morale of our Armed Forces" and to spend more on defense. But he simultaneously discusses American troop deployments in quasi-isolationist code, promising "an immediate review of overseas deployments in dozens of countries, with the aim of replacing uncertain missions with well-defined objectives." The congressional wing of his party goes even further, bluntly calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Bosnia and Kosovo. In other words, Bush and his party are endorsing Reaganite defense spending in service of a less aggressive military posture. The result is incoherent: a military that drains billions of dollars from other priorities but does less to promote democratic and humanitarian values overseas.

In all of this, conservatives imagine they are paying tribute to their hero. But the perversity of it is that the idea of Reagan to which they pay obeisance is not true to the man. Indeed, the most powerful evidence that the principles of Reaganism cannot be everywhere and always applied is that even Reagan himself did not remain true to them.

As memories of his presidency recede into a golden mist, it is easy to forget that, during the Gipper's days in office, the right frequently bemoaned his infidelity to its cause. When in 1984 Policy Review--the journal of the Heritage Foundation--asked eleven conservative activists and intellectuals to evaluate the president, eight gave him critical reviews. To be sure, much of the blame was deflected from Reagan onto his ostensibly weak-willed advisers. Yet the picture of wayward moderates pulling the strings in the White House, while not completely false, was mainly a way for conservatives to avoid acknowledging that Reagan himself was not monolithically conservative. And the right's denial has grown even stronger since Reagan left office. It is widely known, for instance, that federal spending grew substantially during Reagan's presidency, but conservatives explain this away as an unavoidable by-product of Democratic control of Congress, conveniently forgetting that Reagan's proposed budgets increased spending as well. During the presidential campaign, Gary Bauer endlessly cloaked his right-wing moralism in the Reagan mantle but didn't mention that Reagan appeared before right-to-life rallies only by video, that he never expended much political capital on abortion or school prayer, and that two of his three Supreme Court appointments--Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor--have turned out to be moderates.

In foreign policy, it is true that Reagan built up the military and denounced the Soviet Union. But, by the end of his second term, he had grown infatuated with the idea of making peace with the Russians (in part, as biographer Lou Cannon notes, to provide a united front in case of alien invasion). In 1987, Reagan stunned Mikhail Gorbachev by proposing to abolish nuclear weapons--only to be restrained by his advisers, who in this case pulled him to the right. On taxes, too, Reagan backpedaled from supply-side purity. In 1983, he acceded to a tax increase to stanch the revenue lost in his massive 1981 cut. In 1986, he pushed through a tax reform that, while lowering rates, raised corporate taxes, ended preferential treatment for capital gains, and made the tax code more progressive. In the current political atmosphere, such a reform would be unthinkably left-wing. Yet, despite all these ideological compromises, the Reagan of the conservative imagination remains the 1980 version, frozen permanently in its most pristine form.

Ultimately, hero worship breeds despair. The mortals of the present can never live up to the icons of the past. In George W., the Reaganites appear to have everything they have always wanted: a popular conservative poised to end the political exile into which his father thrust them. But at some point W.'s ideology will smack up against the hard reality of today's very different world, and either his popularity or his conservatism will give way. At that point the true believers will discover ideological deviations and conclude bitterly that the younger Bush is his father's son after all. And then, the verity of their doctrine reaffirmed, they will begin once more their search for the true heir to Ronald Reagan. 

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.