WASHINGTON – The Republican debate about the shape of the political future has begun, typically for conservatives, as a fight about the past. As President Barack Obama has become a Jimmy Carter-like figure – hapless, luckless and increasingly friendless – most prospective GOP presidential candidates are positioning themselves as Ronald Reagan’s rightful heir. A thick fog of historical analogy has settled over the Republican field.
“It took Jimmy Carter to give us Ronald Reagan,” argues Sen. Ted Cruz, who clearly sees (and admires) a resemblance to the latter in the mirror each morning. “I’m a great believer in Ronald Reagan,” claims Sen. Rand Paul, even while proposing a Carthage-like destruction of Reagan’s foreign policy. Sen. Lindsey Graham has called Sen. Marco Rubio “the son of Ronald Reagan when it comes to national security” – though Rubio is actually young enough to be Reagan’s great-grandson.
The squabble over this inheritance is recounted in a recent essay by Henry Olsen and Pete Wehner, provocatively titled, “If Ronald Reagan Were Alive Today, He Would Be 103 Years Old.” (Credit the editors of Commentary for knowing how to push conservative buttons in the good cause of bringing more eyes to an important article.) Olsen and Wehner are, in fact, deeply respectful toward Reagan, whom they describe as the greatest Republican since Lincoln. They warn, however, that “the constant invocation of Reagan’s name to bolster arguments for present-day policies (and present-day politicians) actually hinders our understanding of the substance of Reagan’s legacy – and undermines the Republican Party’s ability to make a case for itself in the here-and-now.”
For decades, Democratic policies and politicians grew pale and scrawny in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt. It took Bill Clinton to modernize the Democratic appeal – providing government, at least in theory, with a catalytic rather than supervisory role. It is Republicans who now struggle in the shade of presidential greatness, even when they win congressional elections.
Olsen and Wehner point to two serious risks in seeking “a posthumous seal of approval” from Reagan. First, there is the consistent temptation of all idolatry – to craft a figure in our own image. Those who claim Reagan as the first and purest tea party leader find support not in history, but in mythology.
The authors make what seems, at first, a fine distinction, but turns out to be a decisive one. Reagan’s guiding political principle was not human freedom – the belief of a doctrinaire libertarian – but human dignity. The cause of dignity is served by the ability of individuals to shape their own destiny, something denied in all forms of totalitarianism. But properly limited government can also serve the cause of human dignity. “We accept without reservation,” said Reagan, “our obligation to help the aged, disabled and those unfortunates who, through no fault of their own, must depend on their fellow man.”
At the time, libertarians found Reagan “too kind, gentle and sentimental” and lacking a “blueprint for radical governance” (David Stockman) and the true progenitors of the tea party found him a captive of the “establishment” (Richard Viguerie). In fact, Reagan’s presidency represented an accommodation of the theory of the New Deal and the Great Society (the existence and constitutionality of Social Security and Medicare), coupled with a strong objection to the coercive, uniform and bureaucratic methods of modern liberalism. On economic policy, Reagan was deeply committed to cutting marginal tax rates, but willing to accept tax increases in other areas. He operated, according to Olsen and Wehner, “within the four corners of reality.” He was “more a Burkean conservative than a Jacobin.”
The authors diagnose a second risk of Republican claims to be the vicar of Reagan. This strategy is employed as a conversation stopper: Reagan said it; I believe it; that settles it. But this produces a Republican policy debate encased in amber. “Some of his epigones,” argue Olsen and Wehner, “today appear caught in a time warp, acting as if every year is 1980. Reagan, while conservative to the bone, would never have allowed himself to become captive to the past.” Reagan inherited a nation with high inflation and a 70 percent top marginal tax rate. Our nation has wage stagnation and a gap in skills and human capital that is hardening into a rigid class system.
This is a lesson that is particularly urgent for newly elected Republicans and prospective presidential candidates. A party truly animated by the spirit of Reagan will address the problems of our time, not of his.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.