The Purity Mess & Reagan

by Jonah Goldberg

My column today is on what I think is the real problem facing the GOP. Its travails aren’t the result of being insufficiently conservative. Its troubles stem from it being insufficiently persuasive, not to its right flank but to the general public. In a sense it’s caught in a two-front war. It spends so much of its time trying to convince a deeply distrustful rank and file that it is conservative enough, it has little energy or maneuvering room to persuade the general public it is right. I’m for a more conservative and principled GOP, but only to the extent it can bring the rest of the country with it and/or pass legislation that advances the conservative cause. Otherwise, what’s the point? If it’s just a glorified debating society that agrees with itself but persuades no one else, the party will die and the country will be even worse off. 

I expected to be pelted all morning with accusations of RINOism, but so far it seems to be very well-received, which is nice. Anyway, I wanted to address something I didn’t have room for in the column itself. 

There’s a lot of nostalgia on the right for Reagan. I’m nostalgic for the guy too. But I think people forget a lot. Yes, he was great because he was principled and for what he accomplished. But he was also great and accomplished so much because he was a really good politician. There were people at the time who were far more pure than Reagan. But what separated Reagan from the pack were his political skills. He had the ability to keep most of the conservative rank-and-file loyal while still reaching out to the middle. That ability stemmed from years of trust built up with the conservative movement. And even so, Reagan was often viciously attacked by some conservatives, some of whom today wax nostalgic for the Reagan era. No Republican today has anywhere near Reagan’s credibility.

That’s not a slight against today’s GOP politicians, it’s the result of Reagan’s success.

Just think about it. Reagan came up when conservatism was a true intellectual and political insurrection. He had to prove himself over and over again. As an activist and as a governor, even as a Republican, he was constantly fighting in enemy territory. That he stuck to his guns proved his credibility and his conviction. Today’s Republicans don’t have anything like that sort of institutional opposition within the party. Conservatives run the party, period. And so the dynamic is entirely different. Reagan came up in an age when being the most conservative candidate in the primary was very often a liability. Today being the most conservative candidate is very often a boon.

That’s one reason the rank and file are right to be distrustful of many Republican politicians. When being conservative is a requirement for power, a lot of non-conservative politicians will be tempted to fake their conservatism in order to get power. See, for one of many examples, Charlie Crist. For similar reasons, you can hardly blame conservatives for being at least a little skeptical of Mitt Romney’s commitment to the cause of “severe” conservatism.

For the record, I don’t mind purity tests when it comes to strategy or vision. What I have a problem with are purity tests for tactics. What I mean is: I want the GOP to be a truly conservative party and dedicate itself to conservative ends, variously defined. Politicians philosophically opposed to that ambition probably shouldn’t be Republicans. But when it comes to tactics, I’m willing to cut the GOP some slack if I have faith that it shares my longterm goals. If they can convince me they know where they want to go, and it’s where I want to go too, I’m pretty flexible on how to get there.

So in all the talk about how we need “another Reagan” maybe we should keep in mind that another Reagan would be principled, but he would also be a real politician, with all of the foibles that implies.