David Shribman: Held hostage by Reagan
Is the specter haunting today’s Republicans ... Ronald Reagan?
The 40th president has been dead for nine years. He hasn’t been president for a quarter-century. The world he inhabited — with the Soviets ruling the Kremlin, interest rates hovering in double digits, Michael Jackson performing on glittery stages and Ivan Boesky symbolizing Wall Street — is gone, every shred of it, and now is studied in college history courses. Yet Reagan still is a palpable presence in the party he revived three decades ago. Republicans still push against taxes and portray Washington as a feudal overlord. Almost all of them oppose same-sex marriage and many of them oppose an overhaul of American immigration law, with the party’s last nominee, former Gov. Mitt Romney, using antiquated Reaganite language — he all but said "welfare queens" — to describe half the country.
Many historians view Reagan and his onetime hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the signature politicians — one from the right, one from the left — of the 20th century. In separate eras and in separate ways they molded Americans’ views of community, government responsibility and public leadership for far longer than their tenure in the White House. Each addressed Americans’ fears and preoccupations, altering the character of Washington and Americans’ vision of themselves and their place in the world.
Still, it has gone all but unnoticed that Reagan persisted far longer as a presence in the Republican Party than Roosevelt, who won election to the White House twice as many times, did in the Democratic Party. Reagan’s specific notions and nostrums still govern Republicans. Though much of the general philosophy of the New Deal endures, even embraced (as some of Reagan’s ideas are) by his rivals, a recondite defense of Social Security is about the only actual element of the FDR program that remains part of his party’s creed.
The Republicans have boasted of replacing the Democrats as the party of change, but in this regard the Democrats have changed more dramatically than the Republicans.
By 1960, the Democrats had advanced nearly completely beyond FDR. Their nominee that year, Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was the son of a Roosevelt skeptic-turned-antagonist, and he spoke of a "new generation of leadership" as a way of moving beyond the New Deal.
There were few allusions to FDR in the JFK lexicon.
His speech was an idiom all its own, the rhythms and accent pointedly New England and not New York, forward-looking, obsessed with the future, with themes (space, racial justice, anti-communism) that had no roots whatsoever in Roosevelt or the New Deal. Kennedy, born in 1917, had a worldview that may have been shaped by the World War II stewardship of Roosevelt, born in 1882, but the nation JFK led from 1961 to 1963 bore almost no resemblance to the one FDR departed in 1945.
A mere 15 years separated the New Deal from the New Frontier. Fifteen years after Reagan left, the White House placed the Republicans right in the middle of the George W. Bush era, with a president who in some ways personified the Reagan ethos.
The younger Bush’s emphasis on tax cuts, his inclination toward privatization and his determination not to negotiate with terrorists (a Reagan precept Reagan didn’t always honor) were pages torn from the Reagan playbook.
Now, as the GOP looks ahead to the 2016 presidential election — 40 years after Reagan’s nearly successful challenge to President Gerald R. Ford for the party’s nomination in 1976 — the tone and timbre of the Republicans bear astonishing similarity to those of Reagan.
But in recent months, as the GOP struggled to regain its sea legs after two losses to Barack Obama, Republicans have begun to ask whether they need to move beyond the Reagan model.
Beginning as whispers, as heresies sometimes do, and growing into rumblings, these questions have smoldered beneath the surface, flaring into the open late last month when Jennifer Rubin, writing in The Washington Post, argued that the Reagan myth has become a Republican burden and that the GOP faces a fateful choice:
"The Republican Party can remain a Ronald Reagan historical society, or it can try to endure as a force in national politics."
Rubin distinguished between Reagan-era conservatism and a broader conservative doctrine and expressed worries the party today isn’t so much conservative as reactionary.
Indeed, many Republicans are conducting politics as if they are living on the set of "The Americans," the imaginative television spy series set in the Reagan era.
Oddly enough, a plausible way forward for the GOP might be right before their eyes, in the Democrats whom they revile so much — a party that from 1968 to 1992 (with a brief and painful Jimmy Carter detour) seemed lost in the wilderness after the last living tie to FDR, Lyndon Johnson, left the White House a broken man.
Johnson, elected to the House in 1937 as a Roosevelt acolyte, once spoke of creating a New Deal for the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, an idea so out of sync with the times that it prompted ridicule. That impulse underlined how out of touch Johnson, an accidental president, was with the country — a critique seldom lodged against Reagan except from the left.
To be sure, Democrats still hew to a general view of government as developed by Roosevelt, who was far less an ideologue, and far less consistent, than Reagan. They believe that government can soften the hard edges of life.
But none of them speak of the Agricultural Adjustment Act anymore, nor of the National Industrial Recovery Act, and certainly not of re-creating anything of that scope.
They have reshaped their philosophy to the times, even embracing Reaganite notions; the greatest example is in Bill Clinton’s 1996 advocacy of a fundamental overhaul of welfare.
To make their party a movement again rather than a museum piece, the Republicans can do much the same, adopting the Reagan approach without the precise Reagan elements, giving life to the optimism that characterized his presidency and legacy.
The challenge facing the GOP is to make history without merely hoping that history repeats itself.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.