Would Reagan Recognize Today’s Republican Party?

It's been three decades since Ronald Reagan was elected and both America and the Republican Party have changed.

Former Texas congressman and minor Reagan administration official Mickey Edwards claims his old boss wouldn’t recognize the modern GOP were he alive today. He believes modern Republicans are simply reflexively anti-government with no agenda otherwise.

What would Reagan think of this? Wasn’t it he who warned that government is the problem?

[…]

Reagan, who spent 16 years in government, actually said this:

“In the present crisis,” referring specifically to the high taxes and high levels of federal spending that had marked the Carter administration, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” He then went on to say: “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work.” Government, he said, “must provide opportunity.” He was not rejecting government, he was calling — as Barack Obama did Tuesday — for better management of government, for wiser decisions.

But which Republicans are trying to do away with government?   Certainly, we didn’t see any attempt to dismantle any cabinet departments under the eight years of the Bush administration.  And the federal budget skyrocketed.   And we got the first installment of the almost-certainly-wasteful bailout boondoggle under Bush’s signature.

The Republican Party that is in such disrepute today is not the party of Reagan. It is the party of Rush Limbaugh, of Ann Coulter, of Newt Gingrich, of George W. Bush, of Karl Rove. It is not a conservative party, it is a party built on the blind and narrow pursuit of power.

Hmmm.  But I thought all Republicans cared about was making government smaller?  How do you do that while simultaneously undertaking a “blind and narrow pursuit of power”?!

And, um, Bush was twice elected president of the United States.   Promptly at the stroke of noon on January 20th, he turned over the keys to a successor from the opposition party who had pledged to undo many of Bush’s signature policies.    If that’s a “blind and narrow pursuit of power,” Republicans really suck at it.

Stacy McCain notes, too, that the faces of the party Edwards names are a disparate lot, indeed.

So, on the one hand you have two politicians and a political strategist — people directly involved in the politics and policy of the Republican Party — and on the other hand you have a radio star and an author. Between these two groups, a vast chasm exists. Much that President Bush did, with the advice of Rove, was adamantly opposed by Limbaugh and Coulter, and sometimes opposed by Gingrich as well.

Trying to lump these five very different characters into a single category is not an answer to the question, “What’s wrong with the GOP?” Rather, it is a response to the question, “Can you name five famous people hated by liberals?”

Quite.   Edwards continues:

One who listened to Barry Goldwater’s speeches in the mid-’60s, or to Reagan’s in the ’80s, might have been struck by their philosophical tone, their proposed (even if hotly contested) reformulation of the proper relationship between state and citizen. Last year’s presidential campaign, on the other hand, saw the emergence of a Republican Party that was anti-intellectual, nativist, populist (in populism’s worst sense) and prepared to send Joe the Plumber to Washington to manage the nation’s public affairs.

Umm, no, Joe the Plumber was a desperate symbol grasped by a desperate, floundering campaign to demonstrate elitist Democrats who didn’t understand how their policies would impact the little man; he was never going to be put in charge of anything and turned out to be a rather ridiculous symbol to boot.

As for Goldwater and Reagan, they were outsiders railing against the system.  And Goldwater’s philosophy was soundly defeated at the polls by a lifelong machine politico.   Because Republicans had been in the ascendancy since Reagan, they’ve been running on his fumes ever since.  (Yes, Bill Clinton won two elections but he did it as a “New Democrat” who promised that “the era of Big Government is over” and to “end welfare as we know it.”  Further, Newt Gingrich — another one of those conservative intellectuals with Big Ideas — led a resurgence in the party’s fortunes in Congress two years after Clinton’s election.)  It’s a good bet that the next Republican president will be a leader with a convincing message that speaks to the future.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    As I’ve said before the problem with today’s Republican Party is its transmogrification into a programmatic party by ousting its more liberal members.

    The party had essentially three wings: libertarians, former Dixiecrats and their successors, and mostly northeastern centrists. Of those only the southern social conservatives and the northeastern “liberals” had the temperament or inclination to do the party spadework. As the liberals have been ousted the party apparatus has come increasingly under the control of its social conservatives. That’s a dead end.

  2. duracomm says:

    Dave Schuler,

    Surprised that you argue that the problem with the republican party is that they ousted liberal members.

    During the eight years of the the bush administration the republicans have massively expanded the size, scope and intrusiveness of the federal government at all levels.

    That is not a conservative policy, that is liberal policy enacted by politicians with an R behind their name.

    There has been a lot of bellowing by the press and liberals over the social conservative and fiscal conservative wings of the republican party.

    The fact is those two wings (especially the fiscal conservatives) of the party have gotten far less from the bush administration and congress then the more liberal members of the party have.

    That fact set seems to contradict your argument in the block quotes.

    As I’ve said before the problem with today’s Republican Party is its transmogrification into a programmatic party by ousting its more liberal members.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    duracomm:

    Not all conservatives are fiscal conservatives. Notably, the social conservatives aren’t. You’re just highlighting the very point that I’m making: the fiscal conservatives and the social conservatives in the Republican Party aren’t playing nicely together and the social conservatives are at the helm.

  4. duracomm says:

    Dave Schuler,

    You need to read my comment again, it clearly does not say what you said it did. I said

    There has been a lot of bellowing by the press and liberals over the social conservative and fiscal conservative wings of the republican party.

    The fact is those two wings (especially the fiscal conservatives) of the party have gotten far less from the bush administration and congress then the more liberal members of the party have.

    Few socially conservative policies have been enacted.

    Many liberal policies (including budget busting growth in entitlements)have been enacted.

    Your argument that social conservatives are in charge of the republican party are clearly unsupported when looking at policies enacted.

    I don’t follow socon issues closely but the only socon policy I can think of that has been enacted is the limitation of federal funding for stem cell research.

    However, continuing to argue that the socons run the republican party does accrue public relations benefits to democrats.

    Which is probably why many in the press and other institutions continue to make the argument in face of evidence that contradicts it.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    No, you just have a very different view than I do of American government. I don’t see that you can deduce putative ideology from what policies get enacted into law.

  6. ken says:

    This is self delusion. I knew people who worked in the Reagan administration as political appointees. One person I knew pretty well as he was married to my girlfriends sister and we met frequently for family dinners etc.

    I can say without reservation that the conservatives Reagan brought into government wanted both the fat paychecks and to wreck the agencies they worked in. Not a one of them believed that their government agencies provided a needed service and all believed we would be better off without them. But since they could not get rid of the agencies the idea was to sabotage them so they could not be effective.

    Reagan and his brand of conservatism is the worst thing that has ever happened to our country.

  7. Eric says:

    During the eight years of the the bush administration the republicans have massively expanded the size, scope and intrusiveness of the federal government at all levels.

    That is not a conservative policy, that is liberal policy enacted by politicians with an R behind their name.

    I love how, when reality conflicts with their ideology, certain conservatives simply deny reality.

    Sure, you can make the claim that such and such policies are “liberal,” but that does not make those conservatives liberals in disguise. I would say, based on the evidence that conservatives have done nothing but EXPAND the size of government whenever they’ve been in charge (e.g., under Reagan, Bush), expanding the size of government IS a conservative policy.

    One could also make the equally valid claim that maybe conservatism is simply unworkable and is a failed ideology instead based on what we’ve seen conservatives say and what they actually do. But, of course, it’s much easier to deny reality than it is to admit that you’re policies look good on paper but are completely unworkable and out of touch with reality.

  8. Ottovbvs says:

    All these arguments about shrinking or expanding govt are largely nonsensical. Both Bush and Reagan massively increased govt spending and created huge deficits because they cut taxes at the same time. Conservatives are seldom in the vanguard of cutting defense expenditures where there is clearly vast waste and log rolling any more than Liberals are anxious to reduce Schip. State and Federal spending totals close to $4.5trillion which is several times that of any other sovereign state so the best you can hope for is to make it as efficient and effective as possible.

    As to the wider dilemmas facing the GOP, they have undoubtedly ridden into a canyon. If you look at the main components of the Republican coalition(social,business and national defense conservatives) the fault lines are on show everywhere. The business conservatives who want certain things like immigration reform and efficiently run big govt have basically gone over to the democrats. They’ve essentially bought into a big overhaul of healthcare for example. Sure there are some downsides like more regulation and higher taxes but they can live with that because they are much less important than other issues like getting healthcare costs off their back or saving the financial system. This leaves the social conservatives and the nationalists who have little interest in abortion or homosexuality which obsess the socials. Geographically the party is being driven into the south. I was looking at an Obama approval rating poll (77%) which was very instructive. If you looked at the regional breakdown in only one area, the south, was he below 80%. Everywhere else he was comfortably over 80%,in the northeast it was 88/8! In the south 62/35. Basically the GOP is becoming a talk radio/cable shouter party with its most visible voices people like Limbaugh and Hannity. I went into a bookstore a couple of days ago and they had a huge display of a book by Coulter at the front. Clearly there’s a market for her opinions but believe me we don’t want her as the voice of the party because that market while large in absolute numbers is very small in electoral terms. The base of the party who are basically the cultural conservatives with a large rank and file nationalist sub set don’t want to recognize this so I expect fighting out those differences are going to be the main preoccupation over the next few years. The process is just starting.

  9. duracomm says:

    Ottovbvs,

    The amount of spending increases during the bush 2 administration utterly swamped the amount of tax cuts.

    If you cut taxes ten dollars and increase spending by 50 dollars the bulk of the deficit was caused by spending increases not tax cuts.

    In such a situation if people were honestly interested in fiscal responsibility they would emphasize the importance of spending. This is something big spending republicans and liberals can’t seem to do.

    The current disarray in the republican party has got to be entertaining for the liberals.

    However, I would not get to confident if I were you. Not long ago there were many serious articles written on the permanent republican majority.

    Did not work out for the republicans, I don’t expect it will work out for the democrats either.

  10. duracomm says:

    Dave Schuler said,

    I don’t see that you can deduce putative ideology from what policies get enacted into law.

    There is the fundamental basis of our disagreement.

    I rank action and results over pretty speeches.

    If the politicians say they support fiscal conservatism, yet wildly increase spending you can safely say that

    1. They are dishonest pigs

    2. Whatever ideology they maintain when speaking, the ideology they support is big spending.

    A person generally can’t go wrong with big doses of cynicism toward politicians and the gap between what they say and what they do.

  11. duracomm says:

    Dave Schuler,

    I tried to post a comment that had a link to spending levels of the bush 2 administration and it got swallowed by the spam filter.

    The quote was

    We are in the midst of a crisis caused by so many financial institutions borrowing too much money.

    Somehow, a critical mass of policy makers now believes that the correct response is for the U.S. government to borrow too much money.

    Perhaps the most disturbing comparison is this one: When President George W. Bush was first elected, total federal government spending was about $1.7 trillion.

    In other words, the difference between federal outlays and federal revenue this year will be bigger than the entire government was as recently as 2000.

    The comment caught in the spam filter has a link to the article with those statistics.

  12. Wendy says:

    George W. Bush was not a real conservative, and the Republican base was too dumbed down from years of public schooling to realize it during his campaigns. He followed the intellectuals from two separate schools: The neoconservatives and the compassionate conservatives. The neoconservatives were disillusioned liberals. They realized liberaldom was ineffective, but they still believed in expanding the size and scope of government over human life to accomplish some Higher purpose, and that conservative politicians should do so in a manner that co-opts the popularity of liberals. They advocate welfare for socially unproblematic groups such as senior citizens, and they believe in exporting democracy through military force. They favor pre-empting issues from liberals through implementing big government in a way where market participants are utilized in the scheme, so that they can call it a “free market” and point to how many “choices” citizens are given. That is why they have no real objection to environmentalism and socialized medicine; it is not only perfectly acceptable but actually desirable if implemented in the above manner.

    The compassionate conservatives were slightly less influential. They believe that our Higher purpose is redistribution of wealth toward any needy person or group anywhere in the world, in a fashion that supports and elevates religiosity/spirituality, where the redistribution is done by more efficient private entities as against government.

    The principle of the inalienable individual right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness is a frustration and a problem for these people, who resent it passionately. Rush Limbaugh would do us all a serious favor if he took it upon himself to identify these villains by name to his vast audience. Get the pressure cooker started, and good riddance to them all. They have destroyed lives, literally and in terms of years and savings. The future is one big question mark thanks to these people, but they are completely unrepentant because they believe that their “calling” is morally above our petty technical concerns such as the Constitution, whether wealth redistribution from “haves” is stealing, and whether or not it will cause economic mass destruction over the long run. They are a cancer to the Republican Party, and they should be excised.

  13. Drew says:

    I found Edwards’ comments bizarre.

    At a high level, I think Reagan would say two things:
    1) social conservatives have overplayed their political card; they should de-couple government and social issues, staying mostly silent; and just appoint strict constructionist judges to the courts, letting the rest play out with the will of the vote and the people.

    2) to the big government, NE Republicans, he would be livid. In private, it would be ‘you dirty SOB’s, you caved.’

    IMO Reagan was basically libertarian, and a pragmatist.

    Separately, I’ve noticed a recent theme in commentary. People will comment: Democrats, say, Carter and Clinton, are the real deficit cutters, the Republicans have always been the real spenders. Bad analysis, people.

    In a different post on this site, a guy scolded me for not doing my economic analysis on a pct of GDP basis. (So I redid it, and showed him to still be flat damned wrong, but I digress.) So these remarks will be GDP related.

    Both Carter and Clinton “reduced the deficit” by decreasing defense spending as a percent of GDP. Maybe more properly said, by reducing it, and capitalizing on the fact, in the case of Clinton, that it could be reduced. Carter by a couple points, Clinton by about the same. Peace dividend and such. In Clinton’s case, look at the deficit reduction as a percent of GDP compared to defense. Its basically 1 to 1. In Carter’s case, well, I don’t know how any military person could do anything but sneer at the guy. But have no doubt, on the social spending side, Carter and Clinton were solid spenders.

    So each Presidential successor to C&C has been faced with increased spending to cover defense needs shortfalls. This leaves frauds to advise us that Democrats cut deficits, and Republicans spend willy-nilly to increase them.

    However, one point still remains. Under Bush, with the earmark phenomena, the Republicans truly lost their way, spending like drunks, just as bad as Democrats.

    Now that’s political honesty. Ant other honest people out there?

  14. caj says:

    I would think so, he was one of them who caused this mess from his time in office!!!

  15. Davebo says:

    So each Presidential successor to C&C has been faced with increased spending to cover defense needs shortfalls the continuing truly obnoxious waste and poor decision making by DOD.

    Frankly I’m amazed you could type that with a straight face.

  16. Drew says:

    Davebo –

    Guys like you fascinate me. Of course, the DOD makes many terrible and wasteful decisions. It is a governmental entity playing with other peoples money. There are therefore natural tendencies.

    Do you have any doubt that all other government entities behave the same?? Do you believe there a magic split in the govt employees/appointees application line: all power mongering, stupid, greedy and inefficient applicants go to DOD line……..all you smart, well intentioned and efficient applicants go to the other govt entities line??

    How could you type what you did with a straight face; are are you truly that dopey?

    The observation you make is the elemental argument for limiting the size and scope of government.

  17. Anderson says:

    Promptly at the stroke of noon on January 20th, he turned over the keys to a successor from the opposition party who had pledged to undo many of Bush’s signature policies. If that’s a “blind and narrow pursuit of power,” Republicans really suck at it.

    Right. Because Bush did not carry out a coup d’etat, he was not blindly and narrowly pursuing power.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Because Bush did not carry out a coup d’etat, he was not blindly and narrowly pursuing power.

    Bush pushed the envelope of presidential power during a time of crisis. So did Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. I’d argue Bush expanded power less than many of those men.