How do you get conservatives to think your organization is worthless? A member quoted in the media suggesting it’s time to move past Ronald Reagan is a surefire way to do it. As Rush Limbaugh has pointed out, Governor Jeb Bush never spoke those exact words, but that impression has been left with conservatives around the nation.
Bringing back the Republican Party is a hard task. It’s tougher still when its members don’t trust those running around trying to save the party. It’s worse yet when leaders have no idea why they aren’t trusted. In the minds of many of our leaders, if we could move past Reagan, we could all be sensible adults and make a series of compromises that would get the majority of Americans on board with the Republican Party. The problem with this thinking is that it fails to understand how a party wins an election. It’s not through attracting enough people via a series of compromises of core values. Rather, victory depends to a great extent on money and manpower.
If we are to learn anything from the 2008 campaign, it should be that building a campaign around moderates and independents is a poor plan. Moderates and independents made John McCain the Republican nominee with their support in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, but their role in Republican politics ended with their vote. Many of the party’s faithful didn’t even decide to vote for McCain until the Sarah Palin pick, and only then were there any volunteer efforts. Even those efforts were far less than efforts on the left for their guy. Obama’s people had been involved and engaged throughout the campaign.
Republican elites have correctly guessed that they can count on the vast majority of conservative activists to vote for them. But they don’t just need our votes; they need our money, time, and effort. Unlike leftist interests such as labor unions, environmentalists, and “community activists,” the livelihood of most middle-class conservatives is not tied up in who runs the government.
For a time, Republicans may be able to inspire conservatives to action with fear. But after a while they get tired of reading ransom notes from the RNC threatening national doom should they not send in a $100 check while they watch Republican Party agenda track closely with the Democratic Party on issues such as the size of government and amnesty for illegal aliens. And then conservatives conclude that the Republican Party is not worth their time, money, or sacrifice.
A few weeks ago, an ABC-Washington Post poll revealed that only 21% of Americans identified themselves as Republicans. However, as one blogger pointed out, 35% of Americans in the poll still identify themselves as conservatives. Will the Republican Party win again if at least 40% of conservatives don’t identify with it? And this figure doesn’t even take into account the moderates in the Republican Party, so it’s probably even higher.
The Republican Party should focus on renewing its broken trust with the party’s base rather than lecturing us. I’m all for reaching out, but you have to have something to reach out from. What many party leaders are trying to do is build a mansion on a foundation that’s crumbling. Given that reality, it would be foolish to dismiss Ronald Reagan, who brought so many people behind the Republican banner.
People make two errors with Reagan. First, many look back thinking the Reagan years were the best and there will never be any better. The attitude basically allows us to expect mediocrity from politicians. As someone who was only 8-years-old when Reagan left office, the idea that things can never be any better is depressing. This also contradicts the spirit of Reagan’s last letter to the American people announcing that he had Alzheimer’s. He wrote, “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
The second mistake people make is turning Reagan into a mythic figure, the picture of the ideal conservative who won based entirely on his ideology and command of the issues. Reagan agreed to tax increases when he was president. As governor of California, he increased taxes and spending. Not to mention the decades-long mistake of appointing Justices Kennedy and O’Connor.
However, this side of Reagan has been erased from our conservative history. We have an ideal Reagan against which we measure people. They all fail to measure up, because they’re not being measured against a man. The kiss of death for many campaigns has been when over-zealous supporters compare their bosses to Reagan, only for their candidates to be found to be quite human.
With Reagan’s imperfections, how is it he managed to maintain his stature on the right? It’s because he was a conservative. There are many people who run for office who hold to conservative politics. Reagan however was a conservative. It was a defining characteristic of who he was as a political leader. His conservative ideas motivated him to run for office.
This is far different from elected leaders who are conservative but are motivated to run for office for both noble and selfish reasons. When it comes to conservatives eager to bring a fundamental change in government, while they may vote with you on the big issues, these leaders would say what Hans Solo did in Star Wars: “I ain’t in this for your revolution.”
Such individuals are inevitably part of the political landscape, but when they become your chief leaders and all that you see around you in your party, you have a very serious problem with morale.
Reagan maintains his spot with conservatives because he was in it for our revolution, our ideas, and our principles. The deviations from the party line along the way are overlooked, as we trust that he was doing the best he could to advance our common values.
Reagan also proposed ideas on a grand scale. In his 1980 Republican Convention speech, he quoted Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world again.” He came with big ideas, big plans, and big goals. Some of these goals were never realized, but many were and conservatives loved him for trying.
Today’s leaders offer policy initiatives that excite no one and make no progress on conservative goals. Further, conservatives’ goals are pooh-poohed by the party leaders, who tell us our ideas are “impossible” and “will never happen.” What they mean by “impossible” is that they lack the intestinal fortitude, vision, or political skill to accomplish the task or even move the ball forward. After telling conservative activists that the very goals that brought them into politics will never be achieved, the same leaders will expect them to write the party a big check.
It’s in the mail.
Finally, Reagan was helped by his ability to connect with people. It’s popular in some conservative circles to say, “Personality doesn’t matter. All that really matters is the issues that affect this country.” However, I’ve been around politics long enough to see many candidates run for office with very good platforms and lose. They lose not because they were too far to the right, but because they were boring, self-righteous, arrogant, or lacked basic people skills. If you cannot connect with people, all the good ideas in the world aren’t worth a plug nickel.
Certainly, not every member of the House or Senate could win Miss Congeniality (as Senator McCain reminded us on innumerable occasions,) but you have to have a way to connect with voters, particularly in the tough races where the Democrats’ easiest out will be to portray you as a heartless scumbag who doesn’t care about ordinary people. Conservatives who have boosted candidates like Steve Forbes missed this important lesson from the Reagan years.
Rebuilding the Republican Party is a complex task, but if we take the right lessons from Reagan, the beginning is clear. You have to re-engage conservatives by giving us an agenda that’s worth fighting for and candidates who have the guts, courage, integrity, and political skills to carry it out.