Reagan Is Not the Solution to the GOP’s Problem; Reagan Is the Problem

Republicans need a reset.

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President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.

So the Republican Party’s going through some soul searching. And after the results of the 2012 elections that seems like a sensible thing to do.

But so far most of the changes contemplated tend toward the cosmetic—we have to change our “tone,” they say, or the “face” of the party. And that’s all well and good. But one is left to wonder: Is there something going on here that requires plumbing a little deeper into the Republican depths?

I think the answer is yes.

[See editorial cartoons about the Republican Party.]

Come back with me to 1981. It’s Ronald Reagan’s inaugural, a shining moment for conservatives and the GOP, punctuated by his famous quotation: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

Those words were the apotheosis of a conservative line of argument championed by the likes of William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk for over 30 years. And here was a president not attacking this government program or that one, but instead indicting government as a whole. How satisfying that must have been for those who had long railed against programs like the New Deal and the Great Society.

Not surprisingly, Reagan’s creed became a rallying cry for conservatives and over the past three decades it has remained ever thus. It’s a great slogan that immediately communicates a distinctive set of values, and in that respect, in many cases, it has served the GOP well. But as an organizing principle for electoral success? Well, that’s a little more complicated.

For the GOP’s traditional base—the wealthy—it’s a terrific message. If you have sufficient wealth, you don’t have much need for the domestic programs you see your taxes going to fund, and maybe it offends you to see your money being redistributed by the government to folks less well off than you. If that’s the case, you might prefer a federal government that does less and, as a result, costs less, leaving more of the money you earn in your pocket. In other words, for you, government really is the problem: it diminishes the amount of money you can spend on the things you want, and it does so without offering you something that you regard as an offsetting benefit.

[See political cartoons about the budget and deficit.]

If the number of people who don’t need domestic programs were large enough the GOP would need go no further than Reagan’s creed to win elections. But it isn’t.

Recognizing this, clever Republicans take a step back from the broad sweep of Reaganism and instead try taking it to a more tactical scale, identifying a particular demographic group whose taxes can be said to be paying for a program that benefits someone else. By saying to Group A you are paying for the benefits of Group B some try to mine a latent vein of resentment without threatening government programs that benefit a broader swath of the electorate. See: Reagan appealing to blue color whites by talking about welfare.

Finding the sweet spot between Reagan maximized and Reagan targeted is often the key to Republican electoral prospects, as no less than Reagan himself found out. Early in his first term he managed to push through broad spending cuts. But as people learned the impact those cuts were actually having (remember ketchup as vegetable?) momentum waned. And that’s the thing: take Reagan too far, and your spending cuts start hacking away at programs that people have come to rely on. Think school lunches. Student loans. Social Security. You see, sometimes government is the solution, no matter how much conservatives don’t want to believe it.

Today, the Republican caucus seems fractured between true believers looking to cut anything that moves, and more traditional Republicans who speak Reagan boldly, but apply him more cautiously. And while the radicals have had some well-publicized victories, the long-term health of the party seems dependent upon the veterans’ ability to retake the agenda. One suspects that that is how this play will eventually unfold.

[Check out political cartoons about the Tea Party.]

But I’d like to suggest something a little different. There’s an honorable role to be played by a party that holds government expenditure to a rigorous standard. To be sure, for every government program that works there are any number that don’t. Fashioning a government that is narrowly tailored to the problems its constituents face, and that moves efficiently to address them (whether through a program or the absence of one) ought to be everyone’s goal.

Just imagine how constructive a Republican party able to have a rational discussion about the role of government in our lives could be, a party able to contemplate not only the costs but also the benefits of government, and one that offered a principled view about how to distinguish between the two. That would be quite something. And it would offer an extraordinary service to this country.

But for that to happen, something pretty fundamental has to change. There must be a recognition that for all he did for the Republican cause, in this present crisis Ronald Reagan isn’t the solution to your problem; Ronald Reagan is the problem. And its time to reboot.

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