Over the last week, both a political strategist and a political columnist associated with the Right have pronounced the death of the Reagan coalition. Ed Rollins, who is trying to run Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, says that the alliance of social, economic, and defense conservatives “doesn’t mean a whole lot to people any more” and that it is “time for a whole new coalition” in which some of the previous partners “go by the wayside.” New York Times columnist David Brooks criticized Mitt Romney for tying himself to this dying coalition: It “had its day,” but only “a new brand of Republicanism” can win.
Conservatives should listen carefully to about half of what these men are saying. It is of course true that the country has changed since the 1980s, not least because of the Reagan coalition’s victories. The problems that were uppermost in American minds in 1980 — Soviet adventurism abroad, crime and inflation at home — are behind us. The composition of the electorate has changed, too. Fewer people are part of the armed forces or the defense industry. Fewer feel the bite of income taxes. More voters are foreign-born. Republicans and conservatives cannot simply strive to replicate — or, worse, merely invoke — the strategies and successes of a generation ago.
It follows that conservatives need to figure out how to apply their principles to new challenges. It may follow that they need to emphasize certain principles more and others less. It does not, however, follow that they should simply hold a fire sale of their principles or their voters. Before we ask groups of conservatives to “go by the wayside,” it might be a good idea to ask if we have other, larger groups ready to take their place. We agree with the diagnosis that times are tough for Republicans. We disagree vigorously with the prescription (sometimes implicit) that Republicans should therefore expel, or alienate, the voters they have remaining. The inadequacy of the existing conservative coalition is an argument for expanding it, and perhaps altering it in the process, but not for abandoning it.
The Republican party is, after all, going to remain more free-market in economics, more traditionalist in morals, and more nationalist in foreign policy than the Democrats for some time to come. No plausible path to a Republican future is going to change these bedrock facts about American conservatism.
None of the men running for president has gone very far in showing a new generation how conservative principles might help us meet our present challenges. But as we noted in our editorial endorsing Mitt Romney, uniting the existing conservative coalition is a practical prerequisite for building on it. Even conservatives who favor different candidates should be able to agree with that more important proposition. If Rudolph Giuliani becomes president next year, it will be because he managed to keep pro-life voters in the Republican column. John McCain will not win the presidency, either, without the support of voters concerned about high taxes.
Conservatives believe that American interests and values are threatened by familial instability, runaway government, and weakness and confusion in foreign policy. Those convictions will retain serious political strength for as long as they are rooted in reality. Breathing new life into them, rather than daydreaming about a brand-new coalition, should be the contemporary conservative’s vocation.