Politics & Policy

Coalition Gone?

The state of the Reagan coalition.

Over Christmas, Huckabee consultant Ed Rollins announced that the Reagan coalition is dead. In response, National Review Online asked a group of members and leaders of that coalition to — without getting too much into any specific Republican running for president right now — address the question: “Is the Reagan coalition dead?” And: Can conservatives survive this primary season as winners?

Terence P. Jeffrey

The Reagan coalition is not dead, but suffering from a wasting disease. If it does not get the right therapy soon, it will be too feeble in some not-too-distant election to elect a Republican president.

The principal causes of the disease are the welfare state, illegal immigration and the decline of the family.

The Reagan coalition, properly understood, is not some menagerie of conservative leaders, think tanks, publications, or interest groups. It is the voters who have elected Republican presidents — not from Reagan on, but Nixon on.

Every president since 1968 has been elected by the same swing voters. They are left of Republicans economically; right of the Democrats culturally. When the GOP unites these voters to the conservative base, the GOP wins. When Democrats unite these voters to the liberal base, Democrats win.

So far, Democrats have defeated the Reagan coalition only with southern governors: Jimmy Carter, in the wake of Watergate, running against a culturally moderate Republican; and Bill Clinton, in the wake of a recession, running against a Republican who thought it distasteful to highlight Clinton’s cultural radicalism.

The quintessential Reagan-coalition swing voter is a church-going married mom in Ohio, whose husband works with his hands for a living. Democrats are fighting for an America with fewer of these, using the welfare state, illegal immigration, and abortion as weapons. Some Republicans have grabbed the same weapons … because, after all, they are compassionate souls who believe euthanasia is the only thing to do under the circumstances.

– Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor-in-chief of CNSNews.

Paul Kengor

The Reagan coalition is not dead; it is alive and well, waiting for the right candidate to awaken it. The problem is not the Reagan coalition but the lack of a single candidate in the Republican field who can excite and thus unite the Reagan coalition. All the members of the current crop fail to draw from the full coalition in some unique, important respect. For Huckabee, the failure is on the economic side. For Romney, the failure is on the religion side. For Giuliani, the failure is on the social-moral side. For Thompson, there is a general failure to excite and inspire. For McCain, the failure lingers from his days winning the good graces of the New York Times. The problem for the Reagan coalition is the lack of a Ronald Reagan.

That said, there remains one current candidate who can unite the Reagan coalition: Hillary Clinton. As long as Hillary gets the Democratic nomination, nearly every current Republican candidate (except for Giuliani) can count on the majority of the Reagan coalition showing up in 2008. Hillary remains the best friend of Reagan conservatives.

– Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. He is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand .

Mark R. Levin

Is the Reagan coalition dead? All the elements still exist. And as much as I admire President Bush, neither he nor his father have consistently articulated the principled, conservative case. Bush-41 won election largely because many were voting for Reagan’s third term and his opponent was pathetic. Bush-43 won his second term largely because of his national security leadership and, again, his opponent was pathetic. I am thankful they both won. However, the fact is that the conservative movement and the Republican party are suffering from two decades of neglect. Reagan supporters are often criticized, including here, for practicing a kind of cult of personality. Yet, it was Reagan’s ideas and principles — which were not unique to him but which he confidently articulated and courageously asserted — that endeared him to most of us. No, the Reagan coalition isn’t dead. It’s there for the leading.

Mark R. Levin is author of the bestselling Men In Black, president of Landmark Legal Foundation, and a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host.

John O’Sullivan

Ed Rollins is a good guy, but as someone helping Governor Huckabee, he has to argue that the Reagan coalition is dead. Huckabee is trying to engineer the transformation of the GOP into something different — a socially conservative party with an economically liberal message that will appeal to blue collar workers and others alienated by Wall Street. Economic conservatives can’t complain too much about this, since many of them have trying to do the same thing in reverse. I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a WASP grandee has lamented that the GOP has been taken over by aliens from Churches babbling about morality. Neoconservatives and libertarians were equally mistaken in demonizing their intra-party opponents as “nativists” and “xenophobes”–as some neocons handsomely conceded after discovering in the immigration wars that the great majority of conservatives/Republicans in the country fell into those categories.

Trying to re-shape parties by driving out large numbers of their existing supporters is simply silly. In order to begin justifying it, you would have to guarantee bringing into the party new supporters equal in numbers to those being driven out (plus at least one more.) That is somehow never done in these exercises. Also, images of political parties are deeply fixed in the minds of voters. Even someone as clever as Ed will be unable to persuade the electorate that the GOP has “changed” to the extent necessary for Huckabee’s political purposes. Some people would notice, of course–but mainly those affronted by the change.

If Ed is wrong to think that the Reagan coalition is dead, he is right to argue that it cannot win by repeating the arguments and highlighting the issues of the Reagan years. The world has changed and the issues that concern people have changed too. Conservatives have noticed this, incidentally; Rich and Ramesh analyzed the problem very well in a recent NR cover story. Blowing my own trumpet slightly, I argued the same point differently in my essay “After Reaganism” in the mid-1990s.

Conservative parties in the Anglosphere win when they retain the support of three large electoral blocs: economic conservatives, moral traditionalists, and nationalists. The Reagan coalition consists of these groups. It is not dead, but groups within it are increasingly irritated because they don’t feel cemented by a grand unifying idea (like anti-Communism in the Reagan days) that justifies the concessions each makes to the others. I think that there is such a grand unifying idea standing in the middle of the room trumpeting loudly: it’s the omnipresence of an unaccountable bureaucracy at home and abroad that increasingly rules us while exempting itself from our democratic control. This bureaucracy annoys economic conservatives by overregulating the economy, moral traditionalists by using state power to spread moral “innovation,” and nationalists by deconstructing the nation and transferring power to international bodies.

If we point this out to them, the conservative crack-up can be postponed indefinitely.

– John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review.

John J. Pitney

Rollins has a point about “defense conservatives.” During the Cold War, many of them drew their livelihoods from the military-industrial complex. At the peak of the Reagan buildup in the mid-1980s, defense spending accounted for 6.2 percent of gross domestic product. That figure is now 4.2 percent, down by nearly a third. The disappearance of defense jobs shifted some areas from red to blue, which is one reason why California has trended Democratic.

Even though national security is less of a pork issue, it would be foolish to dismiss its political significance. Rumor has it that Americans do care a bit about their survival. According to a July poll by Opinion Dynamics, 81-percent of Americans think that it is “very” or “somewhat” likely that “another terrorist attack causing large numbers of American lives to be lost will happen in the near future.”

Rather than appealing to selfish interests here, Republicans must show why they would be better guardians of national interest. It’s not just a matter of toughness but competence. Katrina and pre-surge Iraq severely undercut the GOP advantage on the latter point. The party’s leaders now have to restore it.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

Mark Rozell

The obituary for the modern conservative movement has been written many times: after the Goldwater defeat by a massive margin, after the Watergate debacle, even during the Reagan and Bush I years, and many more times during the current Bush presidencies. Today candidates all wrap themselves in the mantle of Reaganism, which is intended to recall fond memories of an era that in truth did not exist — the one in which a president unified an ascendant conservative movement that had previously been marginalized and factious.

To be sure, Reagan was the leading force in legitimizing conservative ideas long mocked, and in putting the modern conservative movement into the mainstream. But the Reagan coalition was hardly unified in the 1980s and there was considerable talk in the country of a “conservative crackup,” of the compromises of conservative principles by Reagan (often blamed on Nancy, or on various presidential advisers), and of the inevitable failure of the movement. Today many forget how truly contentious the Reagan coalition and various conservative factions were in the 1980s.

Especially after the elections of the moderate George H. W. Bush in 1988 and of course Bill Clinton in 1992, many were certain that the conservative movement was dead, only to be truly surprised again in 1994 and in the electoral success of George W. Bush. Today, with no obvious leader to unify the movement, there is talk again of the decline of conservativism.

The point is that it is foolish to draw really big-picture conclusions from the apparent status of the movement during a single election cycle. The movement is contentious now, it nearly always has been so, even back in the days that many conservatives like to recall as a period of unity. So do not write off the conservative movement, for predictions of its death in the past have been wrong. Is it hard to imagine, for example, the conservative factions uniting in opposition to a Hillary Clinton campaign by November? Or, in the 2010 midterm elections of a President Hillary Clinton term a resurgence of a conservative GOP in Congress? A lot can happen.

– Mark J. Rozell is a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Peter Schweizer

The Reagan coalition is not dead. What we lack is a leader with the charisma and political courage of Ronald Reagan. He had the respect and adoration of both libertarian-economic conservatives and social conservatives. No one currently running can fully claim that. Also, too many are looking for the Reagan coalition’s new standard-bearer to emerge from the Washington, D.C. political culture. My advice: Don’t count on it.

– Peter Schweizer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

NR SymposiumNational Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.


The Latest