Opinion

“Zombie Reaganism” And Conservatism’s Loss Of Focus

Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times’ two actual conservative op-ed writers, penned an interesting column last Sunday about the House GOP vote to repeal Obamacare.  Ross made some fairly conventional but well reasoned points about the political risk entailed in the vote.  But intentionally or unintentionally, in pillorying the House for its action on AHCA, Ross exposed a fundamental problem with many modern conservative thinkers: a disavowal of the Reagan legacy.

Consider this line, which caused me to nearly drop my iPad: “The Republicans were given a gift by Trump’s campaign, a grace they did not merit, the gift of freedom from the tarp of dogma, from the pre-existing condition of zombie Reaganism.”

“Zombie Reaganism”?  I double checked the byline to make sure it wasn’t Paul Krugman, and it was indeed not.  This was really Ross Douthat, a reliable and intelligent conservative, belittling the legacy of one of the most important Presidents of the last century, and the most towering political figure in modern conservatism.  This would be akin to an established liberal coming out and saying “Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are now a dead weight around the Democratic Party”.  Which would of course be an accurate statement, but no Democrat would ever think to say that as none of them believe it.

But here we have Ross, presumably under no pressure from his liberal/left editors, belittling a conservative giant.  And Ross is not alone.  Others, like Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum and Reihan Salam have also questioned the Reagan legacy.  (David Brooks is part of this group as well, but he has strayed so far off the reservation at this point that he is more moderate Democrat than anything else).

The question I have is why?  The Reagan Administration was the most successful Presidency of the last 40 years, and comparable only to FDR in terms of its impact on the country.  While it is true that Reagan did not serve three terms like Roosevelt, he was succeeded by his VP, unlike Presidents Clinton or Obama.  And when we think of President Clinton’s terms, they can be seen some as a continuation of Reagan’s presidency.  Clinton domestically ran a center-right Administration after the GOP won the House and the Senate in 1994.  Landmark legislation like NAFTA, the WTO, welfare reform and the repeal of Glass Stegall all occurred under Clinton.  Not surprisingly, all these conservative policies led to a continuation of the Reagan expansion, and further cemented his legacy.  (Clinton was a failure from a national security standpoint, but he did have the advantage of living in Reagan’s post-cold war world).

As such, Reaganism, the blend of market capitalism, patriotism and an activst national defense, worked, and was clearly supported by the public. So why bash a success?  Ross and his colleagues would argue that Reaganism has not adapted to the 21st Century, and that new programs and strategies are needed to address the new legions of blue collar voters who elected Trump and broke the Democratic hold on the House and the Senate during the Obama Administration.

I don’t doubt that some expansion of government is needed to combat social ills like opioid abuse, a scourge that is disproportionately impacting these new Republican voters.  And clearly, the GOP should formulate a governmental response to this situation, especially as the Democrats no longer care about the white working class, and have indeed become hostile to it.

But helping blue collar Americans with various well thought out approaches (more direct help, less bureaucracy) does not necessitate an attack on the Reagan agenda.  After all, many of the problems faced by Americans of all classes have a lot do with the declining growth rates foisted on us not just by the leftist policies of the Obama Administration, but the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush.

Let’s not forget that Bush, with the support of the Fed and a bipartisan coalition in Congress, ramped up Federal programs designed to get as many Americans as possible into their own homes.  The problem, of course, was that many low income Americans could not really afford their own homes, eventually leading to a real estate collapse and the Financial Crisis of 2008.  Bush also increased social spending, centralized education in Washington under “No Child Left Behind” and bailed out the banks and the car companies when the recession hit.  I don’t know if any of this was compassionate, but it definitely was not conservative.  And, not surprisingly, it led to the long, dark night of the Obama Administration and its unyielding efforts to turn the US into Belgium.

The upshot of this is that Bush started the push away from Reagan, cheered on by the Douthats and Salams of the world.   We should not be shocked that as a result, growth slowed, Federal debt piled up and Washington’s regulatory grip increased.  Why Bush felt the need to change course from Reagan’s agenda defies understanding.  Perhaps he thought Government should have played a greater role

in people’s lives.  That’s fine, but that’s not conservatism, and it also sets the stage for more government and less growth.  Ross and his allies seem not to grasp this, or perhaps just don’t care about economic growth.  They say their main concerns involve the new blue collar Republicans, but if low growth hurts anyone its blue collar workers.  In fact it’s no surprise that these constituencies supported Trump in great numbers, as he promised to restore 3% growth.  While it remains to be seen if Trump, who has no track record in governing, can pull this off, his rhetoric at least is on point.

Economic growth is the key to the success of any presidency.  Growth happens when governments pull back and let the markets do what they do best.  President Reagan understood this, and pulled the nation out of the death spiral that was 20th Century liberalism.  Reaganism worked, unconditionally.  But conservatives who should know better now think that the policies and programs of that era are a deadweight.  They are wrong.  And if we don’t return to the policies that really did make America great again, our current dominance of the levers of government will not last long.  If we keep listening to Ross and other conservative critics, we will be paving the way for the most horrible scenario imaginable: The Warren Administration.

Chris Thomas has had a long career in investment management and has held senior positions at several large Wall Street firms. He also teaches continuing education courses in capital markets and alternative investments.  Chris is a graduate of NYU and received his master’s from Columbia.  The views he expresses in the article above are his own.