Here’s a dirty secret about Ronald Reagan: He never would have been elected president if he hadn’t been running in 1980.
For their own good, Republicans, who have turned worship of the 40th president into their unofficial religion (my favorite moment of last summer’s G.O.P. convention was when a video tribute to Abraham Lincoln was interrupted by an ill-fitting Reagan cameo), really need to come to grips with this.
This isn’t to diminish Reagan’s obvious political and oratorical talents or the significance of his presidency. His victory in ’80 represented the dramatic culmination of a decades-long rightward shift among the American electorate—one rooted, ironically enough, in the success of the New Deal and spurred on by the Democratic Party’s decision to fully embrace civil rights in the 1960s.
But even at that, it still took high unemployment, double-digit inflation and an endless hostage drama in Tehran to convince Americans that Reagan, widely viewed as a conservative extremist in ’80, was worth the risk. Had he been the G.O.P. candidate in, say, 1976 or 1968 (the other years he ran for the nomination), he likely wouldn’t have fared much better than Barry Goldwater, whose perceived extremism prompted his landslide defeat in 1964.
With his election and enduring popularity over the next eight years, Reagan brought government-is-the-enemy rhetoric into the political mainstream, making it fashionable for candidates to run as conservatives throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s and into this decade.
But the show is over. Its official end came last November, when Democrats finally broke through at the presidential level, winning a sweeping victory made possible—as with Reagan’s in ’80—by a brutal economy, flagging national confidence and frustration with the basic governing philosophy that had prevailed for the previous several decades. Just as the New Deal/Great Society consensus gave way to the Reagan Revolution, the Reagan Revolution has now, once and for all, given way to the age of Obama.
As of this moment, there is no sign that Republicans understand any of this, something they made clear—yet again—when they dispatched Bobby Jindal to deliver their response to Barack Obama’s address to Congress on Tuesday night.
Obama’s speech can be fairly criticized on several fronts. For instance, he was frustratingly nonspecific when it came to what actions he plans to take to shore up the banking system; yet again on Wednesday, this vagueness contributed to a poor day on Wall Street. But as they showed in November and as they’ve shown in polls over and over, voters are squarely with Obama when he insists that government take an active, aggressive and leading role in restoring the economy to health.
And yet to hear Jindal’s speech was to hear a party that still believes it’s 1984. The Louisiana governor, in a voice that called to mind the voice someone might use to read at the local library’s story hour, railed against Big Government, seemingly suggesting, as Reagan once did, that all of these terrible, awful problems that we have will vanish if only Uncle Sam would get out of the way.
“In this present crisis,” Reagan said in his ’81 inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
“Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us,” Jindal offered. “Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina—we have our doubts.”
He also picked a few comparatively inexpensive items out of the recently passed $787 billion stimulus bill (one of them fabricated) in an effort that called to mind Reagan’s old efforts to rile up anti-government sentiment with apocryphal tales of welfare queens in Cadillacs. Perhaps most tellingly, Jindal even singled out a stimulus appropriation for monitoring volcanoes—a seemingly sensible effort for government to lead, given the potential to save lives and avert billions of dollars in property damage.
“Instead of monitoring volcanoes,” Jindal offered, “what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”
In the wake of Reagan’s death in 2004 and the hagiography that ensued, Republicans have been increasingly gripped by Gipper nostalgia. In a way, this is understandable. Reagan was one of the finest communicators politics has ever known, and the first presidential candidate (and president) with an instinctive gift for performing on television. The stagecraft of his presidency was impeccable and his patriotic homilies have the power to induce chills, even today. (“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc…”)
But there’s simply no mimicking the style of his personal appeal, and his message was suited for a very particular period in American politics. There was never much magic in his words; the power came from who delivered them and how—and when—they were delivered. Still, today’s G.O.P. leaders seem to believe that they need only re-embrace the Reagan philosophy and rhetoric to win again.
“I am in the camp that says we go back to basics,” South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford told The New York Times earlier this week.
Sanford’s (and Jindal’s) camp is, essentially, the entire Republican Party. Every Republican House member and all but three G.O.P senators voted against the stimulus. The only alternative they offered: good old-fashioned tax cuts. And the only G.O.P. governors who showed any enthusiasm for the stimulus were moderates like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jodi Rell, leaders of blue states who are already divorced from their party’s base voters.
Right now, Republicans are their own worst enemies. With talk radio, Fox News, and Web sites like Free Republic, they have insulated themselves from mass opinion—an echo chamber effect that has the party’s base convinced of a narrative of the Obama presidency that’s totally at odds with what most independent voters see.
On Wednesday, for instance, visitors to Rush Limbaugh’s Web site were greeted with the following headline: “As President’s Poll Numbers Drop, Obama Attempts to Co-Opt Reagan.” Over at Free Republic, conservatives were anxiously declaring Obama the second-coming of Jimmy Carter, declaring him less popular than George W. Bush, and—of course—challenging his legitimacy as an American citizen. (Also, the question was asked: “Is Barack Obama the ‘promised warrior’ coming to help the Hidden Imam of Shiite Muslims conquer the world?”)
Obviously, they’re welcome to their seething contempt. But while the G.O.P. base is gobbling it up (along with the Reagan nostalgia), independent voters are overwhelmingly siding with Obama. Can you blame them? It’s not like they’re hearing anything new from the opposition party.