Why Conservatives Are Stuck On Reagan

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Friday would have been Ronald Reagan’s 104th birthday.

Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee likes to remind audiences that the 2016 presidential election will be as far removed from Reagan winning the presidency as D-Day was from 1980.

So why are Republicans running in 2016 still quoting Reagan? One liberal writer ridiculed conservative veneration of the 40th president as “Reagan’s pagan cult” (though he admittedly found a particularly creepy example).

Given that Democrats often kept portraits of John F. Kennedy and even Franklin D. Roosevelt in their homes well into this writer’s lifetime, the mockery seems a bit misplaced. But there’s a simple explanation.

Reagan had a combination of political skills, electoral success, conservative principles and policy accomplishments that Republicans have been struggling to replicate ever since.

He is also arguably the last figure widely admired on the right who had considerable appeal beyond Republicans and conservatives. There’s a reason we talked about “Reagan Democrats” and not “Romney Democrats.”

Sure, you can find conservatives who served in Congress who never voted for a tax increase or an unbalanced budget. (Reagan’s critics love to remind us he presided over both.) Richard Nixon’s percentage of the popular vote in his reelection bid was a little higher. Some of Reagan’s policies, like his amnesty for illegal immigrants, didn’t work.

The Reagan administration had its scandals, failures and disappointments like any other.

But the two biggest problems Reagan was elected to solve — tensions with an ascendant Soviet Union and stagflation — ceased to exist by the time he left office. Not long afterward, so did the Soviet Union itself.

In their place was American victory in the Cold War and a pretty substantial economic boom that, with one brief interruption, continued long after he retired and was good for average American incomes.

You can quibble with how much credit Reagan deserved, though today’s weak growth and conflict with a much weaker Russia show these results weren’t inevitable. Not even Barack Obama has tried to go back to pre-Reagan tax rates.

More importantly, conservatives and the country gave Reagan credit. Most of the bad things, from a conservative or libertarian perspective, associated with the 1980s, would have happened without Reagan. Not necessarily most of the good things.

What has any subsequent Republican done to match this record?

George H.W. Bush provided a steady hand during some turbulent times globally. Newt Gingrich was instrumental in building Republican congressional majorities that reformed welfare and built (but then squandered) budget surpluses. George W. Bush rallied (but then divided) the country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Even welfare reform, the investment tax cuts that helped spur the 1990s Internet boom and the budget surpluses are bipartisan achievements that have to be shared with Bill Clinton.

Let’s not even get started on Dennis Hastert and John Boehner. Reagan was the last national Republican leader who can say he did things as consequential for conservatives as Obamacare was for liberals, much less the New Deal and Great Society.

Then there is the current Republican presidential field. They are mostly sticking with Bob Dole’s unfortunately phrased promise, “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan if that’s what you want me to be.”

Many of them have pieces, but none have the whole Reagan package.

Could you imagine Scott Walker delivering a speech like the one Reagan gave after the Challenger disaster? Jeb Bush bringing tears to the eyes of GOP convention delegates, as Reagan was doing even in defeat in 1976? Rick Perry or Sarah Palin winning millions of Democratic votes? Ted Cruz carrying California, New York and Massachusetts?

Walker or Chris Christie could fire the air traffic controllers. Cruz or Ben Carson could sign into law a supply-side tax cut, though a Bush might call it “voodoo economics,” depending on the Bush.

Since Reagan, a movement conservative hasn’t even been able to win the Republican nomination, much less get elected president. His would-be successors have allowed much of what he did to erode (the top statutory income tax rate is nearly 12 points higher) and have barely touched the things he left undone: entitlement reform, debt control, promoting functioning markets in health care.

Just like James Blaine was still waving the bloody shirt more than a decade after Abraham Lincoln’s death, Republicans will run as Reagan-like equivalents of Elvis impersonators until they can more closely approximate a Reagan-like legacy.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.