Donald Trump is an unapologetic vulgarian who hates George W. Bush and loves the Obamacare mandate. And yet, despite his heterodox views, he has risen unimpeded to the summit of Republican politics, prompting some conservatives to wonder whether the GOP embodied by Ronald Reagan is dead.
Since Reagan’s election in 1980, the GOP has been defined by social conservatism, fiscal restraint, and muscular internationalism. Mitt Romney dragged a three-legged stool around Iowa in 2007 to illustrate the party’s three ideological pillars, telling voters that “our candidate has to be somebody who can represent and speak for all three legs of the conservative stool or conservative coalition that Ronald Reagan put together — social conservatives, economic conservatives, and defense conservatives.” Unscrewing one leg at a time, he showed voters that without any one of these pillars, the stool would crash to the ground.
“My concern is just that if you looked at each of these components, there’s some real fracturing going on,” says Spencer Abraham, the former Michigan senator who served as secretary of energy in the George W. Bush administration. “Within each of those three pillars, the Republican party has much greater divides now in terms of the feelings of its voters than it did when Reagan ran.”
On social issues many of the tensions are obvious. High-profile conservatives from former president George H. W. Bush to Ohio senator Rob Portman and former vice president Dick Cheney have voiced their support for gay marriage. Those visible departures from the GOP’s platform reflect divisions among the party’s rank-and-file. Many Republicans — 45 percent of them, according to a 2014 Pew survey on religion and politics — are unhappy with the party’s stances on abortion and gay marriage. That group is itself divided, between voters who wish the party was more conservative on those issues and voters who wish it was more liberal.
‘The Republican party has much greater divides now in terms of the feelings of its voters than it did when Reagan ran.’ — Former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham
On fiscal issues, promises to slash tax rates no longer move voters as they did in the Reagan era. For one, thanks in large part to the cuts Reagan signed into law, nearly half of Americans now pay no federal income tax. “The idea that tax cuts would be pro-growth is right, except that a lot of people who are unemployed or stuck in jobs that don’t have any wage growth say, ‘Well how long does that take to help me?’” says Steve Hayward, the author of the two-volume history The Age of Reagan. “They don’t see any direct help from that. It’s indirect help. It’s just not politically convincing.”
This is an argument that reform conservatives, or “reformocons,” have been making for several years now. They believe that the party’s reliance on across-the-board tax cuts is not sufficient to address the plight of the middle class today, and that Republican politicians’ overreliance on cuts has cost the party at the ballot box. “Cutting marginal tax rates is not . . . an effective tool for delivering tax relief to the middle class,” the economist Robert Stein writes in the reformocon manifesto Room to Grow. “It does very little to lower their tax bills or improve their work incentives.” Stein and other reformocons have pushed lawmakers to focus less on lowering top tax rates and more on introducing reforms, such as an increase in the child-tax credit, that would offer immediate relief to middle-class families.
Yuval Levin, a leading reformocon and the founder of the policy journal National Affairs, argues that Republicans need to scrap the policies on which they have been relying for the past three decades. “I think the idea that Republicans can approach the country with a reenactment of the Reagan agenda doesn’t make sense,” Levin says. “It’s as if Reagan in 1980 had proposed to reenact the Republican agenda of 1945. . . . Reaganism was conservatism applied to the challenges of the 1970s and 80s. Today’s conservatism needs to apply the same goals and principles to the somewhat different problems of our time.”
“Conservatives are much more divided than they were in Reagan’s time about this,” Hayward says. “They’re saying, ‘Gosh, you know, Iraq was really expensive, Afghanistan was really expensive, and what do we care if the Syrians kill each other?’” Survey data bear that out. In a 2013 Pew poll, over half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said the United States was doing too much to solve international problems, and 53 percent of them said the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally.” The latter number was up dramatically from 22 percent in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks just more than a decade earlier.
Nonetheless, most Republicans, including Trump’s leading challengers, continue to believe that the formula for victory at the ballot box lies in reassembling Reagan’s coalition. For months now Ted Cruz has likened himself to Reagan on the stump and drawn a direct comparison between today’s events and those that preceded Reagan’s electoral landslide in 1980. “I think where we are today is very much like the late 1970s, like the Jimmy Carter administration — same failed economic policies, same feckless and naïve foreign policies,” he said one afternoon in Hamlin, Iowa. “Now why is it that that analogy gives me so much hope and optimism? Because we remember how that story ended: All across this country millions of men and women rose up and became the Reagan Revolution.”
Marco Rubio hasn’t been any less heavy-handed. His campaign produced a television ad that apes Reagan’s hit 1984 spot declaring it “morning again in America.” And, at his victory rally last week in South Carolina, he too recalled the bad old days of Jimmy Carter — “It felt like America was in decline, our economy was stagnant” — and cast himself as the rightful inheritor of Reagan’s legacy. “The children of the Reagan Revolution are ready to assume the mantle of leadership,” he said.
After Trump descended an escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy and deliver the speech that would define the race, many ascribed his rapid ascent to a willingness to take bold and politically incorrect stances on immigration. But his heterodoxies are far broader than that. He’s opposed to entitlement reform, supports campaign-finance reform, and is an unrepentant protectionist. “The conservative movement since Goldwater has meant a certain thing,” says Russ Schriefer, a political strategist who served as an adviser to Mitt Romney and Chris Christie during their presidential bids. “This is the first time that the party is sort of throwing that up in the air.”
Whether or not they succeed in fending off Trump, today’s Republican presidential candidates and the political class supporting them have been blindsided by the same sort of ideological revolution that brought Reagan to power in 1980. Hayward writes in volume one of his two-part history of the Reagan presidency that “by 1980 many Republicans in Washington could be considered victims of the political equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize with their captors.” If Reagan’s agenda has been holding the Republican party hostage since, one of the richest ironies in a cycle full of them is that Donald Trump may be the man who finally broke its grip.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.