As the American right emerges from its November defeat, I’m wondering how conservatives will relate their current situation to their memory of Ronald Reagan. What lessons of Reagan’s career are most appropriate for our current situation? One approach is to repeat heavily distorted and truncated versions of Reagan’s 1980 campaign and policy agenda. Run on a large across-the-board income tax cut. Run against big government spending. Try to maximize your margins among white Southerners and non-Southern working-class and suburban whites.
I remember listening to several conservative talk shows in the days after the election. One of the reasons Romney’s defeat (and even more Obama’s victory) was so shattering to the callers’ morale was that Romney , for all of his flaws and idiosyncrasies, had run a Reagan campaign as they remembered it. There was the huge income tax cut and the attacks on too much spending. Romney wasn’t as funny or principled as Reagan, but he was a decent man, the circumstances were favorable and his opponent was a liberal. Romney even reassembled the Reagan demographic coalition. The last time a Republican won the white vote by twenty percent was when Reagan was still president. But Romney still lost decisively.
One possible reaction is to blame Romney personally for the Republican defeat. The same across-the-board income tax cut + bash big government wine would have tasted much better in a populist Reaganite bottle. I guess it helps if you pretend that Romney ran as a patrician moderate “who intended to make government more efficient to help the poor.” Even when Republicans run on a Kemp-Roth Jr. platform, it is still Nelson Rockefeller who loses the election.
The callers weren’t buying it. A more common reaction from the callers was embittered despair. The takers finally outnumbered the makers. Too many people wanted free money and (as Romney helpfully put it) “gifts” from Obama. The main solace of many callers was some variation of a revenge fantasy. Don’t come crying for my gold coins and real estate when your Obama welfare checks stop coming because I have a gun. I doubt very many actually mean much of this but as their political certainties (America is a center-right country) failed, they retreated to the story of the grasshopper and the ant.
The problem is that people are taking the wrong lessons from Reagan’s political career. The lesson isn’t that across-the-board income tax cuts are the right political answer regardless of the political and economic circumstances or else the people are swine. See if you can spot a lesson from Reagan’s First Inaugural:
Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes — they just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter — and they’re on both sides of that counter.
Compare that with Romney’s rhetoric. In Romney’s rhetorical world, the person on the business side of the counter is still a hero (unless they are sales associate paid around ten dollars an hour.) The businessman is a job creator. He “built that.” But there is about a fifty percent (forty-seven percent to be precise) chance that the person on the other side of the counter is a parasite who thinks of himself as a victim, can’t be persuaded to care about his own life, and therefore won’t benefit from Romney’s income tax proposal. And it isn’t just Romney. Romney didn’t invent right-of-center contempt for the forty-seven percent. He isn’t that creative.
Such is the distance between Reagan and some of those who consider themselves his ideological admirers and heirs.