Ramesh Ponnuru says that the GOP has a Reagan problem. Not that Reagan is a problem for the GOP. But that many members of the party seem to have derived the wrong lessons from Reagan’s political life.
Ponnuru notes that some Republicans that want to be done with the memory of Reagan, others hail him as some sort of saint, and various stripes of Republicans that all paint a picture of Reagan as supporting their particular world view. Ponnuru notes that most GOP presidential contenders in the recent round tried to paint themselves as the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.
Perhaps somewhat due to Reagan’s relative success, certain conservative policies become orthodoxy in the GOP. The accepted understanding among those seeking national office appears to be that garnering GOP votes requires paying homage to these conventions. But this, asserts Ponnuru, is the opposite of Reagan’s approach.
Reagan, says Ponnuru, “did not advertise his conformity to a school of thought even when he did, in fact, conform. He did not, that is, sell his policies on the basis of their conservatism. Rather the reverse: He used attractive policies to get people to give his conservatism a look.” This is how he cobbled together a supportive coalition and “managed to lead both parties simultaneously.”
Another useful lesson, per Ponnuru, is Reagan’s sincere respect for constitutionalism and for “our political inheritance from the Founders.” This “provided a connective thread, a coherence, a seriousness, and even a nobility to his politics that it might otherwise have lacked.”
Finally, Reagan was pragmatic about his conservative principles. “Reaganism succeeded as statecraft” says Ponnuru, “because it applied characteristically conservative insights to the challenges of his time.” Rather than being stuck on specific policies, Reagan focused his attention on the things that were most important at the time. Instead of trying to continually repeat the policies of the Reagan administration, the GOP should apply conservative principles to the challenges facing the nation today, focusing on those points that will garner the most bang for the buck.
Bill Bennett, who served as Education Secretary under Reagan, is fond of reminding people that the Ronald Reagan of the 1980s was not the Ronald Reagan of earlier decades. The Reagan of 1980 was not even the same Reagan as that of 1976. Reagan continued to develop during his presidency. Thus, suggests Bennett, casting about today for another Ronald Reagan of 1988 to break on the scene is a fool’s errand.
Both Ponnuru and Bennett remind that the Reagan years were fractious for the GOP. There were many Republicans of assorted inclinations that thought Reagan was too far from their ideological preferences. Bennett also notes in his book, America, the Last Best Hope, Vol. 2 that Reagan’s successes didn’t necessarily help many Republicans win political office during his terms.
It is natural that Republicans would want to emulate, as Ponnuru says, “the most successful Republican president of the last century, and the president most associated with the conservative movement.” But in doing is, it is important to understand which lessons to emulate and how to apply those lessons to the issues of the present day.
It is possible to respect and even revere Reagan without holding fast to the same policies he successfully championed. I suppose that if he were still around today the policies he’d be promoting would likely be different than the ones he promoted back in his day. He’d still be advocating a conservative and constitutional approach, but I assume he’d be a lot more flexible than many of those that invoke his memory suggest. Of course, since I just did the same thing, I could be wrong.