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Getting Over Reagan

David Brooks, writing in yesterday’s New York Times, riffs on a perceptive piece by Tyler Cowen in Cato Unbound [the essential blog for libertarians]. Brooks’ piece is behind a subscription firewall so I will cite it extensively. The Cowen piece is online and can be read here.

Brooks’ argument is roughly as follows: Republicans cannot revive their political fortunes by looking back to Reaganism. That was an appropriate response to a particular historical situation but the principles on which it was founded are no longer applicable to the very different world of the twenty-first century.

Ronald Reagan came to the presidency at a time when the top tax rate was 70%, when socialism had not yet been discredited, and when federal regulation was stifling the economy. In that situation many reasonable, non-ideological people could accept the argument that big government was a serious threat to their liberties and future prospects. As Cowen puts it, the “old story” was “big government crushes liberty”.

But things have changed in the past quarter century. Today reasonable people see external forces as the greatest threats to their lives and liberties. They worry about globalization, environmental change, Islamist terrorism, the high costs of health care and the like, and in these circumstances people look to the government to protect them and their liberties. A new storyline, “advances in liberty bring bigger government,” or as Brooks has it, “security leads to freedom,” has replaced the old Reaganite formula in the minds of most Americans.

Because they are heavily invested in abstract principles intellectuals and political activists have been slow to recognize that the ground has been shifting beneath their feet. They still hold to principled arguments long after they have become politically dysfunctional. People might not like big government, high taxes and bureaucratic regulation, but they also want government to act to protect them from a myriad of threats and to them Reaganite rhetoric is a turnoff. The GOP, in other words, finds itself increasingly out of touch with the mainstream of American public opinion.

Brooks then makes an important point. He writes:

The sad thing is that President Bush sensed this shift in public consciousness back in 1999. Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to move beyond the “liberty vs. power” paradigm.

Here Brooks is absolutely right. President Bush has been far more astute and prescient than his critics.

Both major parties are afflicted with ideological hard-liners who, proclaiming themselves to be “the base”, have sought to force the mainstream into a retro political mode. If the Democrat Left is forever reliving the Seventies and Vietnam and Watergate, the Reaganite Right remains mired in the Eighties. The one major political figure who has been willing to take a mature and responsible approach to the problems of government is the man who actually has to govern — President Bush. For this he has paid a terrible political price.

Not only has Dubya been vilified by both the Left and the Right, but in last year’s elections fringe elements of the Republican coalition, determined to administer a “thumpin’” to those who they saw as not sufficiently principled, delivered control of the government to Democrats who are now using that power irresponsibly to undermine the administration. Pelosi and company are less concerned with effective government than in being able to enter the next election cycle portraying Bush as a failure, and that seems to be OK with the hardliners.

Brooks argues that President Bush could have avoided this if he simply explained his policies more effectively. I’m not sure. For those who consider themselves “the base” the “politics of principle” are impenetrable to explanation. The ideologues stubbornly hold to a reassuring vision of a glorious past and comfort themselves with the fantasy that a return to Reaganite principles is all that is necessary to regain political ascendency, but that is a recipe for disaster. Rather than luxuriating in the politics of the past, Republicans have to align themselves, as Dubya has tried to do, with the sensibilities of today’s voters.
As Brooks concludes, “Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.”

To which I can only add, “Amen!”

UPDATE:

Oh my! No sooner do I post this than I go over to the “Corner” to find this. Jonah Goldberg, who I respect and read regularly, produced a paragraph that perfectly sums up the unfortunate attitude I was decrying above. He writes:

The conservative movement is not primarily nor even really secondarily about winning elections. Conservatives are about winning arguments or, if you prefer, winning hearts and minds. The Republican Party can be a useful tool in this regard, but it’s an unwieldy and ultimately unreliable one. Personally, I think the GOP and conservatism have become too intertwined. This is good when it makes the GOP more conservative, but it’s bad when it makes conservatism more like a political party.

He wrote this in response to the Brooks article, which seems to be causing quite a stir in the conservative blogosphere. Read the whole post here. And, by all means, go over to The American Scene and read Ross Douthat’s eminently sensible take on the controversy [here]. Douthat points out that many of the policy issues that really interest conservatives, free-trade, ending farm subsidies and the home-mortgage deduction, means-testing Social Security, and the like are “either extremely uninteresting or extremely unpopular with most voters” and when Bush has followed conservative recommendations he has suffered politically.

March 30, 2007 at 8:55 am
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