Much conservative resistance to the presidential candidacy of John McCain is based on a fear that the conservative movement, as shaped by Ronald Reagan, is in danger of breaking up. It’s argued that McCain lacks a commitment to one or more of the three foundations of the Reaganite political castle — economics, foreign policy, and social issues.
But John McCain, a down-the-line backer of Reagan and Reaganism in the 1980 nomination fight and in the House and Senate of the 1980s, is much closer to the spirit of Reaganism than many of his critics.
More than three decades after Reagan’s first presidential primary victories and nearly two decades after the end of his presidency, it’s understandable that Reaganism is often remembered in conventional terms, as a linear descendant of such previous conservative leaders as Barry Goldwater and Robert Taft. But this greatly underrates the creativity and originality of the issue package Reagan put together in the 1970s and 1980s. In pivotal areas, Reagan went directly against the grain of conventional wisdom as defined by the Republican establishment of his day.
In economics, the Nixon-Ford administration was wedded to conservative Keynesianism. Stimulus was defined in terms of Fed-generated easy money implemented by Nixon appointee Arthur Burns, inflation-fighting in terms of wage and price “guidelines,” and jawboning in the style of Ford’s long-forgotten “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) program. When tax cuts came up, it was almost always in terms of investment credits for corporations, with temporary “rebates” for individual taxpayers.
Reagan broke through this unappealing mess with supply-side economics, which to him mainly meant deep, permanent cuts in personal tax rates. As late as 1980, the GOP establishment, including conservatives like George H. W. Bush, were describing this approach as “voodoo economics.” (Bush’s own tax-cut proposal consisted mostly of expanded depreciation write-offs for corporations.)
In foreign policy, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took the nation along the path of “realism” and détente. When conservatives began to dissent in the early 1970s, it was mostly in opposition to dovish arms-control concessions to the Soviet Union.
Reagan’s vision of foreign policy included this critique, but went far wider and deeper.
He transformed the military debate with the Strategic Defense Initiative. He went beyond containment, directly challenging pro-Soviet regimes via the Reagan Doctrine of aid to anti-Communist insurgents. And his forward strategy in the Cold War included a vision of America as a “shining city on a hill,” and democracy as a God-given right of mankind. When Reagan delegates led by Jesse Helms challenged the Ford-Kissinger foreign policy at the 1976 GOP convention, the title of their successful substitute plank was “Morality in Foreign Policy.”
McCain backed this Reaganite agenda when it was innovative, counterintuitive, and facing its most vehement attacks, not just from the left but within the Republican Party. But how does the McCain of today stack up in terms of applying the spirit of Reaganism to the issues America faces two decades later?
On foreign policy, McCain represents continuity with American greatness. As he said at the Values Voter convention in October,
My father and grandfather fought fascism. My generation fought communism. Now we are summoned to confront the evil of radical Islamic extremism. There is no denying it is evil. How much more evident could it be than in the means our enemies choose to confront us. Their terrorism is not only an assault on our political and economic interests. It is an act of war against our defining ideals.
And what are those ideals?
Americans are part of something providential—a great experiment to prove to the world that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but the only moral government. And through the years, generations of Americans have held fast to the belief that we were meant to transform history. What greater cause could we ever serve?
On social issues like abortion, the difference between Democrats and Republicans in the early 1970s was at best hazy. Ford’s 1974 appointee as vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, had vetoed pro-life bills passed by the New York legislature. Reagan’s nomination in 1980, together with the rise of social liberalism in the Democratic party, polarized the party platforms and clarified the debate, winning millions of votes from “Reagan Democrats” for the GOP presidential tickets of the 1980s.
On judicial activism in general and abortion in particular, McCain has a clear pro-life record and a firm future-oriented commitment. According to his campaign website,
John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench. Constitutional balance would be restored by the reversal of Roe v. Wade, returning the abortion question to the individual states.
And on economics, McCain has focused (as did Reagan) on tax changes that will focus on the middle class rather than corporate elites. He favors making permanent all of the Bush tax cuts and repealing (not just “patching”) the Alternative Minimum Tax, without any offsetting tax increases.
On spending, McCain is strong in an aspect of the Reagan agenda where even Ronald Reagan met little success: spending control. He has advocated abolition of earmarks and severe cutbacks of federal pork, as well as entitlement reforms to reduce the path of future spending. It is in this context that McCain will be a firm defender of the Bush tax cuts that he voted against at a time when there was no serious plan to control Federal spending.
On the issues on which Ronald Reagan built the conservative movement and which are just as relevant today, the election of John McCain is, for conservatives, by far the best option to regain the initiative in today’s politics.
– Frank Cannon is the treasurer of the Susan B. Anthony List and managed Gary Bauer’s presidential campaign.