Posts Tagged Reagan
April 26, 2012
Culture Warriors Don’t Win
By GIL TROY
Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.
Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.
Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”
Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.
Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”
There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”
In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.
Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.
Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.
Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.
Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.
Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.
Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.
Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”
In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.
Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.
- Gingrich Tells Romney He Will Quit Race – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- There They Go Again – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- The Outsourced Party – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Cagle Post ” Gong, Gong, Gong! (mbcalyn.com)
- Republicans Brace for Possible Open Convention – NYTimes.com (mbcalyn.com)
- Mitt Romney, with nod to Ronald Reagan, asking voters how life has improved under Obama (boston.com)
- Santorum embraces Reagan’s values in Gipper’s hometown (vancouversun.com)
- Barry-O Quotes Regan – Very Selectively – Not Accurately (dewgeneral.wordpress.com)
- Michael Reagan: Obama Exploiting Dad’s Legacy For Political Gain (gunnyg.wordpress.com)
- Obozo Has Gone Plumb Loco! (fellowshipofminds.wordpress.com)
January 19, 2012, 11:24 PM
There They Go Again
A week ago, 150 evangelical leaders meeting at a ranch outside Houston backed Rick Santorum’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Presumably, they hoped that their endorsement would pull Mitt Romney back from the front of the race. Saturday’s primary in South Carolina – with evangelicals expected to make up sixty percent of the electorate – provides what seems like a perfect testing ground for disrupting any claims about Romney’s inevitable nomination.
Newt Gingrich is apparently surging once again, taking votes from Romney. Coupled with Rick Perry’s exit, the evangelicals’ blessing of Santorum in Texas could propel him to a surprisingly good showing on Saturday or — who knows? — perhaps even a victory.
Speaking from Texas shortly after the endorsement, Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative who ran for president in 2000, explained why the evangelicals had rallied behind Santorum: “They were all looking for the best Reagan conservative.”
Dennis Cook/Associated PressRonald Reagan in the Oval Office on Jan. 28, 1986.
For nearly twenty-five years, Ronald Reagan has loomed over every Republican contest. During the debates this campaign season, he has been mentioned four times as often as the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush. At the final debate in South Carolina on Thursday, for example, Newt Gingrich said, “When I became speaker, we went back to the Ronald Reagan play book.” Mitt Romney, for his part, didn’t like to hear Gingrich speaking that way. “I looked at the Reagan diary,” he told Gingrich. “You’re mentioned once.”
This is typical. Across the Republican Party’s political spectrum, candidates continually claim the Reagan mantle, depicting themselves as his most steadfast acolyte and the natural heir to his political legacy. Rick Santorum did it, too, suggesting earlier on Thursday that he was the candidate most likely to fulfill Reagan’s political legacy. “We’re going to win or lose this election based on about 10 states,” he said. “I come from one of those states. I come from a background and a town where there were lots of Reagan Democrats.”
The religious right wing of the Republican Party has clung especially close to the memory of Reagan. In Reagan, religious conservatives remember a president who spiced his speeches with Bible verses, fought for their issues, and championed the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. But memory is an unreliable guide, and history in the service of politics often breeds soothing myths that camouflage inconvenient truths.
In reality, religious conservatives were often dissatisfied with Reagan’s presidency. The Christian right of today – and Republicans generally – must stop using a mythic Reagan as their measuring stick for candidates because it drives them away from viable contenders who fall short of an impossible standard that Reagan himself couldn’t have met.
Believing themselves the key constituency that had guaranteed Reagan’s historic win in 1980, Christian conservatives felt the president owed them for their enthusiastic backing. Reagan had courted the nascent political movement on the religious right with a spirited defense of their most cherished political issues, including promises to restore school prayer, to work against the Equal Rights Amendment, and to attack federal abortion rights, legalized just seven years before.
But once in office, the Reagan administration claimed that it first had to address the nation’s weak economy. The social agenda of Christian conservatives would have to wait. In the meantime, the White House planned to muffle their grumbling. “We want to keep the Moral Majority types so close to us they can’t move their arms,” one Reagan staffer explained to the journalist Lou Cannon.
The complaints piled up. Evangelicals pointed out that Reagan had appointed too few of them to positions in government, despite his campaign promise that evangelicals in his administration would mirror their proportional representation in the American population – about forty percent at the time. In light of that snub, Reagan’s selection of Sandra Day O’Connor — who had made several pro-choice votes during her time in the Arizona state legislature — as his first nominee to the Supreme Court stung sharply.
During the campaign, Reagan had won the National Right to Life Committee’s endorsement by pledging that he’d only nominate committed pro-life jurists to the nation’s highest court. Reagan’s tepid and ineffectual support for key school prayer and anti-abortion legislation in Congress during his first administration frustrated and angered religious conservatives who watched various bills die while the president did little.
As the 1984 election approached, Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, confessed he was “a little anxious that we haven’t had some aggressive support” on issues important to the religious right. Sixty-eight percent of pro-life activists judged Reagan’s first four years as “fair to poor” on the abortion issue.
Many Christian conservatives began to publicly question supporting the president’s reelection bid. “If we balance the budget and we still keep murdering a million and a half babies every year, there’s no way we can say we’re better off than we were four years ago,” Moral Majority’s Cal Thomas commented. “Do not take us for granted,” the fundamentalist pastor Bob Jones wrote the president. “We are not going to vote for you in desperation in 1984.”
Still, these chiding messages were meant to prod the Reagan White House into an aggressive defense of their issues rather than to represent a legitimate political threat. Conservative Christians generously contributed to Reagan’s landslide win in 1984. While disheartened by what they saw as the slim accomplishments of the first four years, many Christian conservatives, rather than hold Reagan personally responsible, blamed moderates in the White House, like James Baker, then chief of staff, for blocking their agenda.
Others contended that Reagan would turn to their priorities in his second term, once he was free to pursue their causes after he’d secured re-election. “With the burden of campaigning behind him for good,” a writer for Christianity Today, the nation’s leading evangelical publication, wrote on the eve of the election, “the president may move vigorously toward his unfulfilled 1980 promises.”
Once returned to office, however, Reagan continued to disappoint conservative Christians by his failure to advance their political objectives. Their anger and frustration with the president soon gave way to grief and disillusionment. Shortly after Reagan left the White House, the influential evangelical intellectual Carl Henry blasted Reagan for having “given little more than lip service” to the concerns of conservative Christians. Looking back on the Reagan presidency and George Bush’s election in 1988, the editors of Christianity Today worried in a headline, “Were Christians Courted for Their Votes or Beliefs?”
The political disappointments and painful realizations that marked the religious right’s rocky relationship with Reagan’s presidency have been replaced by the more powerful seductions of selective memory and wishful fantasy. But like any myth of history, there are small truths within it that alter the memory.
Reagan failed to achieve the religious right’s grandiose objectives, but he delivered on other issues religious conservatives cared about, like cutting taxes and increasing military spending. His full-throated espousal of traditional morals and Christian principles along with symbolic gestures like naming 1983 the “Year of the Bible” looked like crass politics to many observers, but linger as forceful evidence for many conservative Christians of Reagan’s unique example.
If Republicans want to appeal to an American electorate that increasingly has little direct connection to Ronald Reagan, they need to let go of romantic memories that produce only unrealistic expectations. Part of Reagan’s appeal came from his insistence on his own limitations, so Republicans would be wise to stop looking for a savior among a field of mortals.
In reflecting honestly on their own fractious history with Reagan, religious conservatives and other Republicans alike might better evaluate the candidates that stand before them rather than hopelessly praying for the second coming of a president who never really was.
Neil J. Young is the author of the forthcoming book, “We Gather Together: The Rise of the Religious Right and the Challenge of Ecumenical Politics.” He teaches at Princeton.
- An Open Letter to Rick Santorum supporters – Tea Party Nation (gds44.wordpress.com)
- The Clash in the Carolinas (jamesdboys.com)
- Gingrich and Santorum Vie to Be the Conservative of Choice (thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com)
- CNN Debate Fact summary by FACTCHECK.ORG (worldviewtonight.wordpress.com)
- Will The Real Ronald Reagan Please Stand Up? (npr.org)
- Will The Real Ronald Reagan Please Stand Up (npr.org)
- Mitt Romney, the Anti-Reagan – Tea Party Nation (gds44.wordpress.com)
- Eli Lehrer: Learning the Wrong Lessons from Ronald Reagan (huffingtonpost.com)
- Aha! An Explanation? (tribuneofthepeople.com)
- Rick Santorum’s Evangelical Endorsement: Was the Voting Rigged? (maboulette.wordpress.com)
“Money was all appropriated for the top in hopes that it would trickle down to the needy.”
Good old Will said that back in the 1930′s, during the Great Depression. He had quite a way with words, didn’t he. Well, it still holds true today, in the midst of our own Great Recession.
When Ron Reagan – St. Ronald to his followers – was elected president, he embraced something called supply side economics, in which tax breaks were given to businesses and the wealthy with the intent that it would benefit poorer members of society by improving the whole economy. Opponents of this idea derisively call it the trickle-down theory. (Even more derisively, George Bush the Elder called it voodoo economics.)
This theory has been around for over a century, and was originally called the horse and sparrow theory. According to John Kenneth Galbraith, the saying went, “If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”
Why do I feel like a sparrow right now?
For most of the last thirty years, with the exception of the Clinton presidency, this economic model has been the main focus of all things Republican. (It should be noted that the eight years Clinton was president were the most expansive, economically, in our history.) Despite the fact that Reagan had maybe three years of boom times before the economy collapsed in 1987 is of no consequence to the Right, and the fact that George the Younger presided over the second largest economic debacle in U.S. history is also ignored. When are we going to realize that giving more money to those already in control of most of the wealth in this country is not the answer.
Since 1980, when Reagan took office, the top 1% have seen their incomes rise by 275%, while the poor have seen a drop in their incomes. If supply side economics really worked, how could that be so? Is the horse constipated? Why are the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, while the middle class is disappearing?
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Okay, so the trickle-down theory doesn’t seem to work, if our current economic situation is any indication. So what do we do? Not being an economist, I don’t rightly know, but I know what not to do: exactly what we have been doing! We need to try something different. But the Republicans, and many Democrats, don’t want to do anything different, in fear of hurting the “Job Creators.” Now I may be wrong, but the only place I see jobs being created right now is in Southeast Asia.
Why is change anathema to so many members of our society? I can understand why the wealthy don’t want change. They are the ruling class. Mess with them and they threaten to take their money and go home. But why does the average working Joe support policies that don’t help anyone but the rich? What is their motivation. A simple look at the facts over the last thirty years should spur on change. Why isn’t it embraced?
“All progress requires change, but not all change is progress.”
We desperately need change. When the welfare of a select few are prioritized over the interests of the many, there is a problem. The 1950′s were a time of great expansion for the middle class, yet the top-tier tax rate was as high as 91%. (Ike did that to pay down the war debt.) If America can prosper under that kind of burden, why not try it now? Ike wasn’t exactly a Communist. As it is, we need to try something. And if that something doesn’t work, try something else, until we arrive at a solution.
The Occupy protesters, who are currently being demonized by the conservative media, are advocates of change. They say they want a level playing field, but what they really want is just a chance to get in the game. Right now, there is a fence around the field, and no one else is being allowed to play. How fair is that?
People shouldn’t fear change. Without change, blacks would still be slaves, women would not have the right to vote, and we might still be a colony of England. Embrace change, before it is too late.
- Dirty Politics | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.com)
- Why Republicans Hate Bill Clinton | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.wordpress.com)
- Wealth Distribution In America | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.wordpress.com)
- Occupy Wall St. and Other Fodder | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.com)
- Herman Cain, Contender or Pretender? | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.com)
- Tax The Wealthy – Not | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.com)
- Occupy Wall Street | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.wordpress.com)
- Occupy Oakland Protesters Gassed | breezespeaks (mbcalyn.com)
- Trickle Down Economics (blogher.com)
- Are You Rich Yet? (dcwreck.wordpress.com)