An increasing number of political commentators are saying, in effect, that it’s a surefire certainty that Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. Of course, four years ago the Higher Punditry was united in foreseeing that Hillary Clinton would be the 2008 Democratic nominee, so don’t bet the mortgage on Romney’s coronation yet.
Although the former Massachusetts governor does now seem a likelier nominee than he did a month or two ago, the conservative grassroots still harbors a profound ambivalence about Romney and, indeed, all the other GOP presidential aspirants. What the grassroots activists really want is another Ronald Reagan: a genuine conservative candidate who will unite the party’s warring factions, overthrow an incumbent Democratic president, and transform the American political discourse. But a quick historical reflection on Reagan during the 1980 race suggests that none of the GOP’s present presidential possibilities are likely to fill the Gipper’s shoes.
As a thought experiment, consider how Reagan would appear as a presidential candidate today. If he were the same age now as he was at this point in the campaign leading up to his 1980 election victory, Reagan would be sixty-eight years old – the same age as Newt Gingrich, eight years younger than Ron Paul, and not much older than Romney (64) and Rick Perry (61). (By contrast, George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s principal opponent in the 1980 primaries, was only fifty-five in the year before the elections.)
In this alternate scenario, Reagan first would have come to public attention as a Hollywood film star in the early 1970s, when he would have been politically as far to the left as you could get without actually joining the Symbionese Liberation Army. Reagan would have remarried in the 1980s and begun to move rightward, but would have switched his registration from Democrat to Republican only in 1994, at age fifty-one. His first political involvement would have come as a GOP speechmaker in 1996, followed by his election as California governor in 1998. After leaving office at the conclusion of his second term in 2007, Reagan would have narrowly missed seizing the GOP presidential nomination at the 2008 convention – his second attempt, after an initial run in 2000. By 2011, Reagan would be a household name to most Americans, a long-established officeholder and presidential contender, and the principal political spokesman for American conservatism over the previous dozen years. None of the current GOP presidential nominees can match those qualifications.
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Of course, American conservatism today is not what it was back in 1979, so Reagan’s political record in California in all likelihood would now open him up to relentless attack from the right. As governor, Reagan violated the two greatest conservative taboos by signing the nation’s most liberal abortion law and, in his first year in office, imposing the largest tax increase in the history of California, or indeed of any other state at that time. Worse still, from a conservative standpoint, Reagan’s tax increases were highly progressive, disproportionately targeting corporations and high-income individuals.
As a former union leader, Reagan was an outspoken opponent of right-to-work laws (still a favorite right-wing cause), and as an outdoorsman and conservationist he added more land to the state park system than any California governor other than Earl Warren. Reagan’s past left-wing enthusiasms, and his wife’s close friendships with homosexual men, would not pass muster with today’s right-wing enforcers. Nor would it escape the beady attention of social conservatives that although Reagan talked a good game about the importance of faith, he rarely attended church.
Reagan nonetheless retained the affection and loyalty of conservatives. In large part this was because, although there’s no good way to prove this, most conservatives seem to have considered him one of their own, and so allowed him latitude that they wouldn’t have granted to most other politicians.
Reagan also helped to bring conservatism to maturity in politics by persuading his followers that principles had to be balanced with pragmatism. In a state that – unlike Texas – contained a wide spectrum of political views, Reagan negotiated and found common ground with Democrats and moderate Republicans in the California legislature.
Compromise, to Reagan, was a necessary price to pay for conservative victories he achieved as governor, such as reductions in property taxes, cutbacks in the state bureaucracy, welfare reforms, a strengthened criminal justice system, and a new public consensus behind values such as order and stability. In his view, conservatives accomplished their aims by winning over opponents, not by crushing enemies. He warned California movement activists against making the GOP into “a narrow sectarian party” that would disappear “in a blaze of glorious defeat.”
It’s highly unlikely that any one of the current crop of Republican candidates, even if elected president, could channel and discipline the energies of the conservative movement as Reagan did, and thereby make the GOP into a party that can wield power effectively and persuade the country to move in a conservative direction.
This isn’t entirely the candidates’ fault; the conservative movement, aided and abetted by enforcers such as Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth, has become so rigid and dogmatic that it denies the conservative label to anyone who engages in bipartisanship or transgresses against any of the growing number of conservative positions, from in-state tuition for illegal immigrants to global warming to evolution. It has thereby become essentially impossible for a Republican holding a position of serious authority to both govern responsibly and pay absolute fidelity to the conservative line.
Republicans who really do want to see a second coming of Reagan would be advised to hope for the best, in future elections, from charismatic but non-doctrinaire “purple state” leaders, possibly including the likes of Chris Christie, Robert McDonnell, and Marco Rubio – and be prepared to cut them some ideological slack.