Politics & Policy

The Reaganite Rnc

Conservatism and politics.

In two editorials earlier this week, the Manchester Union-Leader reported that RNC chairman Ed Gillespie had kissed off small government and Reaganism in a meeting with the paper’s editors. According to the Union-Leader, Gillespie “said in no uncertain terms that the days of Reaganesque Republican railings against the expansion of federal government are over. . . . No, today the Republican Party stands for giving the American people whatever the latest polls say they want. . . . The party’s unofficial but clear message to conservatives is: Where else are you going to go? To the Democrats? To the Libertarians? They don’t think so.” Rush Limbaugh has referred to the Union-Leader’s reports on the air.

Gillespie disputes the Union-Leader’s characterization of his views, maintaining that the context has been omitted. “They never asked me about the Reagan revolution,” he told me yesterday. “I am a Reagan revolutionary. Ronald Reagan brought me into this party.” Gillespie says he wants to shrink government as much as possible and, when it is not possible, to bring conservatives principles to bear on government programs.

Gillespie defends the prescription-drug plan on the merits. Medicare should be modernized, he argues, both to cover medicines that play a larger role in health care than they did when the program was invented and to incorporate market forces. He thinks that a pro-market reform can be passed over Ted Kennedy’s objections.

Gillespie said that while he participated in efforts to abolish the Department of Education in the past, its continuation is now a settled issue. The Union-Leader hits him for that. But what Gillespie said is the lamentable truth. The GOP platform abandoned the fight against the department in 2000. That’s one reason Bush didn’t get slaughtered on the education issue as Bob Dole did in 1996 (who lost on the issue by about 60 points). Would it have been worth losing the presidency in order to maintain the anti-department position? Especially given that maintaining that position was extremely unlikely to result in the actual abolition of the department? (None of this is to say that Bush had to push for the No Child Left Behind Act.)

“I believe that conservatives and millions of other Americans are Republicans because they support our positive agenda and share our beliefs, not because they have nowhere else to go,” writes Gillespie in a letter to the newspaper to be published tomorrow.

I’m glad Bush and other Republicans are taking heat for their record of expanding the government — a subject about which I plan to say more in the next issue of NR. But conservative critics should not pretend that political leaders can act on conservative principles without ever making any concessions to political circumstances. Ronald Reagan was certainly willing to make such concessions. If bashing Bush and company from the right helps to change those political circumstances in a positive way, great. But to overstate his perfidy is to understate the magnitude of the political task that conservatives have before us.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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