Politics & Policy

2016: The Nostalgia Trap

How Republicans can avoid the mistakes Democrats are making now.

As Jeb Bush’s campaign continues to struggle, the former Florida governor’s team has taken to attacking Marco Rubio as a “GOP Obama” by outlining the two men’s “strikingly similar profiles: first-term senators, lawyers and university lecturers, served in part-time state legislatures for eight years, had few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.” Governor Bush had best hope that Senator Rubio is not a Republican Obama; checking Wikipedia, I find that Barack Obama did indeed win the 2008 Democratic primary race against a more established candidate. He also happened to get the highest percentage of the popular vote of any Democratic presidential candidate in over a generation. Moreover, many Republicans who see that Barack Obama has pushed the Democratic party far to the left might hope for a candidate who can push Republican politics to the right.

Leaving to one side the accusation that Rubio is a “GOP Obama,” it’s worth taking a minute to remind ourselves precisely why the Obama administration has failed in so many ways. Inexperience is less to blame for the current administration’s failures than its blinkered ideology and nostalgic commitments to tired policy choices.

The Bush critique of Rubio draws parallels between Rubio’s and Obama’s relative newness on the national political stage at the time each first ran for president. In our current environment, however, newness to national politics will likely be viewed more as an asset than as a liability. Moreover, while Obama himself was relatively inexperienced, many of his top lieutenants — including Joe Biden, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, and John Kerry — have had long national careers. And, with four years in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama had spent more time in national office than Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt had when they became president.

There has been incompetence and corruption in this administration, but experience is no guarantee against either. Certainly, the administration’s intellectual vices have been made worse by a compliant media; a more rigorous interrogation by the media would have likely encouraged the White House to think more critically and effectively about its policy choices. But one of the greatest — and under-discussed — shortcomings of the Obama administration is its political nostalgia.

The president talks much about History and the importance of being on the “right side” of It. However, so much of what counts as “progressive” these days seems like a tired remake of Sixties politics: The Great Society meets New Left radicalism but with iPhones and skinny jeans. As with many remakes, this version is less exciting (we’ve seen how this movie ends) and less current. I don’t mean to discount the differences between the Great Society and the Great Disappointment of the Obama years. For instance, a globalized faux cosmopolitanism — simultaneously tribalist and anti-national — seems to have taken much greater hold in the current administration (and perhaps even among some of its supposed political opponents). Yet the Left’s allegiance to the comfortable pieties of the Sixties seems part of the reason for its many failures.

This worldview sees a rural good ol’ boy clinging to his guns and his religion as the greatest foe of “progress.” Thus, it is woefully unprepared to confront the reality of black-robed fanatics beheading religious minorities, enslaving villages, and setting fire to the Middle East. Because of its limited moral imagination, it also struggles to persuade a heterogeneous body politic. Early proponents of Great Society welfare policies might not have foreseen how, too often, well-intentioned government dictates could destroy communities, tear apart families, and destroy the foundation of economic opportunity. Experience has — or should have — disabused us of this naïveté. And say what you will about the dangers of central planning, the technocrats of the past were at least able to do things like put a man on the Moon. The mandarins of today struggle to get a health-care website up and running. Outside the narrowly political realm, as the Far Left claims a resurgent voice in cultural affairs, we have increasingly seen how radical progressive politics are a cultural dead end: Rather than a spirit of creativity, exploration, and accomplishment, radical leftism gives us only the petty tyranny of a Maoist struggle session.

Nostalgia is a significant temptation for the GOP right now, though for Republicans the nostalgic black hole is the 1980s rather than the 1960s.

All of this brings us back to the Republican party. Nostalgia is a significant temptation for the GOP right now, though for Republicans the nostalgic black hole is the 1980s rather than the 1960s. As a number of conservative reformers have argued, Ronald Reagan proposed solutions to problems facing the United States that differ in many ways from the challenges facing the country today. (To note that difference is not to criticize Reagan. The fact that these problems differ is partly a result of policy successes, especially the collapse of the USSR.) These differences in situation suggest that, even if we keep to the same foundational principles, our application of these principles should change.

Resistance to such change in application persists. On taxes, many Republicans remain wedded to the 1980s model of tax reform, though some (such as Rubio) have pushed for a more capacious reimagining of tax reform and its place in a broader policy constellation. On immigration, the latest effort at “reform,” the Gang of Eight bill, would have repeated many of the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty and would still have left millions in the shadows — and would have encouraged millions more to join them. Some Republican presidential candidates, such as Rick Santorum, have begun to push back against a nostalgic policy on immigration reform, but many remain under the sway of nostalgia’s charm. Republicans who cling to the age-old dream of entitlement reform will need to confront the fact that gathering the political will for prudent entitlement reform will require a broad-based economic rejuvenation. On cultural issues, conservatives and traditionalists will have to do more than appeal to some vast silent majority, which might not be quite so vast any more; instead, they will have to advance their ideas in a more deeply considered, and seriously developed, way. Again, none of this requires the sacrifice of essential principles — such as the commitment to limited government, the integrity of the individual, and the importance of freedom — but it will require a willingness to think beyond old talking points.

Democrats have already begun to feel the political ill effects of their indulgence in nostalgia; Republican waves in 2010 and 2014 have thinned the Democratic bench in states across the country. The effects of progressive nostalgia may ultimately place new strains on the progressive coalition (for example, the uptick of crime in many major American cities threatens some of the alliances undergirding a reborn urban progressivism). On the presidential level, Hillary Clinton appears likely to continue, and indeed to extend, the ideological commitments of the Obama administration, and it remains to be seen whether this approach will keep her from securing the White House in 2016.

Republicans can afford nostalgia even less than Democrats. Economic sclerosis might be beneficial to the party of big government in the short term (in the long term, of course, sclerosis will bankrupt big government), but it’s crippling for a party of upward mobility, limited government, and the free market. Republicans will have to take steps to confront some of the fundamental forces shaping our political moment — among them, a battered middle class, a fractured public square, escalating health-care costs, a stagnant economy, a foreign policy punctured by disappointments and false promises, and a financial sector distorted by Too Big to Fail.

Republicans can confront those issues (as can Democrats), but this will require leaving behind the swaddling blanket of nostalgia. Barack Obama came to office promising a pragmatic, forward-looking administration that would unite the country. His administration has obviously failed to deliver on these promises. For 2016, Republicans do not need a candidate who effuses glib slogans and knee-jerk policy solutions — selling nostalgia is as American as apple pie (itself a nostalgic image). They need one whose policies confront contemporary challenges in a way that is in accord with the enduring principles of liberty and human dignity.

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