Tear down this icon: Why the GOP has to get over Ronald Reagan

ASSOCIATED PRESS - President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan the 1981 inaugural parade in Washington.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post.

The 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.

But 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.

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Today’s 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.

The 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 governing philosophy.

The 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.

“We’re 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.”

The 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.

In the 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.

Even 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.

After 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 thers is the party of law and order.

In 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.

When 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.”

The 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 years ago.

During 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.

Fortunately, 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.

They 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.

But 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.

Shortly after being blasted by the old guard, McDonnell told 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 Conference.

The 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.

The 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 its party is the real story of the post-2012 GOP, and the party’s only hope for survival.

And 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.

America 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.

Reagan 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.

A 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.

In 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.

However, in this endeavor Republicans should recognizethat 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.

Even 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 favors. No wonder Bush, whose presidential library opened Thursday, is making something of a comeback — after two presidential defeats, a softer-edged conservatism with concern for the middle class and the poor is returning to fashion.

A 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 rights.

The 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 civic associations.

If they 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 political liberty.

rubinj@washpost.com

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris

Five myths about Ronald Reagan’s legacy

The numbers prove it: The GOP is estranged from America

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