The Ghost of Reagan Past

They all invoke his name with a reverence that the down to earth Reagan would probably have found amusing if he were alive. They identify their policies with his. They promise to emulate his strength, his purposefulness. They all promise to be true to his legacy.

Republican candidates for President vie with each other on the stump and during the debates to prove which one of them deserves to wear the mantle of successor to Reagan because not to do so - to reject the icon and strike out on your own - would be suicidal. As one wag put it, it would be "like asking the Vatican to give up St. Peter."

Indeed, there is almost a religious element to this Reagan worship in the Republican Party. And the fact that true believers in the former president's legend will make up a large percentage of primary voters means that it is simply a given that GOP presidential candidates must pay lip service to the Reagan legacy in order to have a chance at the prize.

And it isn't just Reagan's legacy to which these candidates pay homage. All the major players find it necessary to adopt the Reagan agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong national defense as their Ur issues. This despite the fact that most Americans - thanks to the Reagan revolution - pay little or nothing in taxes already, and the GOP Congress spent an entire decade making hash out of the idea of "smaller government," going on a spending spree that, as John McCain will eagerly tell you, "gives drunken sailors a bad name."

It is true that these issues are "Republican issues" in that the GOP has adopted them and made them the defining concerns of the party. But recent polling has shown that people don't want smaller government as much as they want more responsive government. If they can get that without an increase in the size and reach of government - and if Republicans can show them how it can be done - then we will indeed have entered a new age.

No matter. Ronald Reagan's presence in the Republican Party still overshadows all who seek to lead the GOP. And this raises an interesting question: Is it time for Republicans to move beyond the memory and legend of Reagan and re-invent the party and re-tool conservatism to more realistically reflect the times in which we live?

The Cold War is over. Ruinously high marginal tax rates are a thing of the past. The language of debate over the size of the federal government has been permanently altered to the point that even Democrats hesitate to advocate Washington-only solutions to social problems like health insurance. Welfare reform has changed the way we look at entitlements, although real reform of the welfare state has not been attempted in any serious way.

In short, the issues and conditions that gave rise to Ronald Reagan either no longer exist or have already been changed to reflect the success of the revolution he initiated. And yet Republicans keep pushing issues like "tax reform," despite the fact that, according to the Tax Foundation, a whopping 52 million American households paid no income tax whatsoever in 2005.

That's up from around 30 million in 2000.

Today's debate over taxes has been reduced to elimination of the death tax or making the Bush tax cuts permanent - important issues to be sure, but hardly the across-the-board cut in rates that seemed so radical back in 1980. There are various schemes to completely overhaul the tax system - as there have been in every presidential election since the end of World War II. But outside of the Fair Tax proposal that seems to be picking up a little steam in the grassroots, there is not much chance that any proposals to abolish the IRS or impose a flat tax will see the light of day in Congress.

And while the need for a strong defense is more vital than ever, we are already spending nearly half a trillion dollars to defend this nation - not including emergency appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan. There is little room for the 30 percent increases in spending advocated by Reagan back in 1980. Nor is there a need for those kind of increases. It is a different military today, asked to perform a very different mission. Rather than massive increases in spending, most defense experts are looking at targeted increases in the size of the army, Special Forces, and other areas vital in fighting the War on Terror. In other words, the kind of bold, world-altering changes that Reagan managed in the 1980's are neither possible nor necessary.

And what of reducing the role and shrinking the size of government? In an age where the political pendulum is swinging back toward the center rather than reaching its apex on the right, in order to get elected, Republicans are going to have to stress more efficient government while addressing the growing concerns of the American people with such non-Reaganesque issues as health care, child and elder care, and other middle class quality-of-life matters. There are conservative alternatives to federal funding of these programs and Republicans ignore these issues at their peril.

The Democrats faced a similar dilemma back in the 1960's and 70's with the haunting presence of Franklin Roosevelt hanging over the party. The perceived commitment of FDR to the less fortunate among us allowed the Democrats to invoke his name while opening the floodgates of government spending on social programs. The debate back then was not whether a program for the poor should be passed, but rather how much we should be spending to fund it. And the party continued that kind of suicidal rhetoric well into the 1980's until the Reagan revolution squelched it for good.

Might the Republicans be in similar danger with their reliance on the Reagan legacy to win elections and run the government? The Reagan leadership personae has moved from fond memory into the realms of myth and legend. This makes us forget certain inconvenient truths about those years such as huge deficits and the leadership failures brought to light in the Iran-Contra imbroglio. There is much good to take away from that time. But how much of the good can be transported to the present and grafted on to the current Republican party and the ideological movement that is conservatism?

Reagan stands a silent sentinel over the modern GOP, still evoking powerful emotions and loyalty among conservatives. Perhaps it is time to carefully place his legacy and memory in our national treasure chest, taking them out on occasion to examine them for the lessons we can learn rather than pushing that legacy front and center in a futile attempt to recapture the power and the glory of days long gone and a time that will never come again.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House.