Making the GOP Great Again: The Real Reagan Example

By | 2018-02-08T09:55:10+00:00 February 7th, 2018|
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Another day, another “crisis.” Did Trump say “shithole?” Will the government shut down over DACA? Did Trump pay off a porn star? Every day seems to feature a new outrage demanding our immediate attention.

While it’s difficult not to be distracted by these skirmishes between Left and Right, people who are serious about saving America would do well to resist the temptation to chase after each one. Like doctors who treat symptoms but do not seek to cure the disease, these  erstwhile political physicians may make the patient feel better for a time, but if he is seriously ill he’s still going to die.

Those of us who want to change the direction our country is taking, who want to nurse our regime back to health (or at least get it out of the emergency room) need to take a different tack. We need to treat the symptoms with an eye to what is causing them to erupt. We need to understand what the disease is so we can treat it intentionally, with a plan, rather than simply looking for the political equivalent of hospice care. That means occasionally looking up from our Twitter feeds and thinking long term.

Long term thinking in politics means considering the most effective ways of changing public opinion. As I noted in my last column, at least a plurality of Americans have identified with the party most dedicated to changing America, the Democrats, every year since the 1930s. The only time in the last eighty years the Democratic margin has significantly decreased is during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. So it just stands to reason that maybe he did something that no one else did before or since, and that we should try to learn from his example.

Most people on the Right who take up that challenge say that the lesson we should learn is one of style rather than of substance. Reagan, they say, was just as opposed to the New Deal and big government as Barry Goldwater, who was crushed in the 1964 presidential election by twenty-four points. But Goldwater was angry and defensive whereas Reagan was sunny and optimistic; Americans could relate to Reagan while the harsher Goldwater alienated them.

Further, they suggest, the times were different. Goldwater ran in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, before Vietnam, the Great Society, and the social and economic upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s had discredited liberalism. Reagan’s 1980 victory came at a time when Americans were humiliated by the daily spectacle of the Iranian hostage crisis and hungered for a return to better days. Their philosophies were the same, this read goes, but Americans were more willing to hear that message when days were darker and the messenger brighter.

To paraphrase Reagan, it’s not that this view is wrong, it’s just that it assumes much that isn’t so. For all of their stylistic differences, the fact is that Reagan’s philosophy was very different from Goldwater’s. This, not those superficial or accidental differences, is why Reagan could move people to the right and Goldwater couldn’t.

We can see how different their principles were by looking at their attitudes towards Federally-financed social insurance programs. Goldwater’s best-selling book, Conscience of a Conservative, attacked them. Arguing that the Constitution did not authorize the federal government to pass such efforts, the craggy Arizonan contended that popular programs like Social Security should be repealed. Indeed, he even said that efforts to encourage “those who are fortunate and able to care for the needs of those who are unfortunate and unable” should be done “in a way that will preserve their freedom. Let welfare be a private concern.”

Reagan’s views were very different. His conservative speeches in the late 1950s and early 1960s always included statements that such programs were not only constitutional, but desirable. In 1958, for example, he told the California Fertilizer Association that “most of us wouldn’t buy back many” of the social programs passed in the preceding decades “at any price. This represented forward thinking on our part.” In 1961, he even told the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce “any person in the United States who requires medical attention and cannot provide for himself should have it provided for him.”

This difference took concrete form in how each man addressed the issue of Medicare. Both opposed its creation but for very different reasons. Consistent with his principles, Reagan always argued that the federal government should provide funding for those senior citizens who genuinely needed help to pay their medical bills. He opposed Medicare because it would provide a mandatory program that covered all senior citizens regardless of need.

To that end, Reagan enthusiastically supported the leading Medicare alternative, the Kerr-Mills Act. This bill created what we would today call a block grant program, giving federal funds to states to devise their own programs to help medically needy seniors pay for necessary medical care. Reagan wrote his longtime pen pal, Lorraine Wagner, that he favored this bill because he was for “providing medical care for those who really need it and can’t pay for it.” He went on to say that “if the money isn’t enough I think we should put up more.”

For all of their stylistic differences, the fact is that Reagan’s philosophy was very different from Goldwater’s. This, not those superficial or accidental differences, is why Reagan could move people to the right and Goldwater couldn’t.

Goldwater, on the other hand, opposed Kerr-Mills even though it was the GOP’s preferred alternative. When the bill came on the floor in August 1960, only two Senators voted no: segregationist Democrat Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater.

Reagan never abandoned these views. In fact, this old dispute took center stage in the most crucial moment of his 1980 campaign, the final debate with Jimmy Carter. Carter ripped into Reagan over and over again, arguing that he was no different than Goldwater and noting Reagan’s opposition to Medicare. Finally, the Gipper had had enough. “There you go again,” he said in what became the evening’s most famous line. He then explained:

When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed. I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them.

This exchange is widely credited with convincing a wary public it was safe to trust Reagan with the presidency. A previously even race broke decisively in his favor in the following week. Reagan won by ten points, sweeping 44 of 50 states and giving Republicans control of the Senate for the first time in 26 years.

Reagan’s continued commitment to the essential features of the modern state meant that independents and disaffected Democrats could embrace him and his party without abandoning the things they valued most. By the end of his eight years in office, what was a 23-point gap between Democrats and Republicans had narrowed to less than five. And this difference mattered.

Under Reagan’s tutelage the debate on many issues shifted dramatically. Before Reagan, Americans instinctively looked to Washington to solve their economic problems. Today, even President Obama’s most audacious initiatives, Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act, were significantly less intrusive than proposals Democrats had embraced before Reagan. In foreign policy, before Reagan the defeat in Vietnam had left Americans wary of confronting Soviet expansion. After him, Americans if anything became too complacent about the use of hard power, so successfully had Reagan and his successors exerted America’s will across the globe.

Reagan could change minds because he met the voter where he or she was rather than trying to challenge them too much, too quickly. As he wrote in National Review in December 1964, “human nature resists change, and it goes over backward to resist radical change.” One would think this simple dictum would be well practiced by conservatives who profess above all else to be suspicious of change. Yet too often it is precisely those who profess to love Reagan most who have listened to him least. They sing Reagan’s praises, but their chorus bleats from Goldwater’s songbook.

Some among us wonder if Americans are still open to a message of freedom. They wonder if our country has slipped too much, that our people have become too weak, to sustain the respectful tolerance that allows free men and women to express serious differences and yet live in the same land under the same laws. They think Reagan had it easy, that even he couldn’t make America great again unless he embraced a politics of constant, unyielding confrontation.

Well, the people who believe this have short memories. People had doubts about America’s character then, too. Reagan expressed those doubts in his 1980 election night speech to America.

for the first time in our memory many Americans are asking: does history still have a place for America, for her people, for her great ideals? There are some who answer “no;” that our energy is spent, our days of greatness at an end, that a great national malaise is upon us.

Reagan said then that Americans were up for the challenge.

I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything they are sturdy and robust as they have always been.

All they needed was a leader who loved and understood America and Americans as they understood their country and themselves.

If we are to meet today’s challenges, if we are to return America to the course she has strayed from, we must recover the understanding that allowed Reagan to save her in our last time of crisis. We must strive not just to win the immediate battles ahead, but to do so in a way that our cause gains recruits and enlarges over time. We cannot win Pyrrhic victories that allow us to see off our foes but cost us so much that we are unable to win the war.

Today, for better or for worse, Donald Trump is our leader. Is he singing from Reagan’s hymnal? Is he instead frittering away our forces in futile, failing confrontations? I shall turn to those questions in my next, and final, installment in this series.

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About the Author:

Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).