Reagan, Bush, and the Search for a Usable Republican Past

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Photo: Brooks Kraft/Corbis

Yesterday, Chris Moody asked several Republican presidential candidates one of the most revealing questions of the presidential campaign so far: Who is the greatest president alive today? Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump all named Ronald Reagan, notwithstanding the fact that Reagan, at least according to the liberal media, is no longer alive. And if you’re going to cheat a “greatest living president” question by naming a dead one, you could just as easily go ahead and name Lincoln or Washington. But that would amount to a form of blasphemy.

What makes the question so devilish is that the ranks of the living presidents offer no answer to the question that can square with conservative doctrine. Two of the living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) are eliminated off the bat on account of party affiliation. The other two, George Bush and George W. Bush, have been excommunicated for committing real or imagined ideological heresy. The Reagan answer was not a mistake — it was the reflection of a party lacking a usable past.

For the last 25 years, Reaganolotry has retained its grip on Republican doctrine. Reaganolotry holds up Reagan as a standard of perfection against which every other president is judged. The Reagan of the Republican imagination bears only a loose relation to the actual man. “Reagan” has come to represent conservative control of the Republican Party. A Reaganesque politician hews to simple precepts, like no new taxes ever, and unyielding hawkishness in foreign affairs. He symbolizes the apparent success of a proposition conservative activists began to make in the 1950s: that the party’s failures were a result of its moderation, and that its success would come if it adopted uncompromising conservative doctrine. That Reagan himself played an important role in that movement in the 1960s, and then presided over a popular two-term administration, makes him a uniquely potent symbol.

In reality, Reagan himself violated conservative precepts flagrantly. As an activist, he warned that the enactment of Medicare would herald the end of freedom in America. As president, he agreed to increase taxes, a progressive tax reform shifting a higher proportion of taxes onto the rich, and arms control with the Soviets, all to massive right-wing dismay. All these deviations were necessary for his political success, but conservatives forgot them to make him symbolically useful.

In 1990, George Bush agreed to raise taxes in return for spending cuts, as Reagan had done. When Bush lost reelection, this compromise served as the conservative explanation for his failure. He had lost because he had betrayed Reaganism. George Bush took his place in party lore as the anti-Reagan, a cautionary tale of the disaster that would greet a Republican who deviated from the true Reaganite faith. Indeed, when George W. Bush ran for president at the end of the decade, he had to conspicuously disassociate himself from his father and cast himself as a follower of Reagan.

Bush governed in a more consistently conservative fashion than Reagan had. He relentlessly cut taxes, increased defense spending, and opposed regulation. Bush had retrenched on Medicare prescription drugs (much like Reagan had given up his opposition to Medicare) in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the conservative stance, but this failure hardly troubled conservatives at the time. They endorsed his election enthusiastically. The prescription drug failure merited just one sentence in National Review’s enthusiastic endorsement of his reelection in 2004. Even as fanatic a purist as Ted Cruz was a Bush fanboy then. It was Bush’s second-term collapse into deep unpopularity that forced conservatives to retroactively disown him as a heretic.

Bush has never fully recovered his standing with the party faithful. He used the pretext of a storm to skip the 2008 convention, and went ahead and skipped the 2012 convention, too.

The trouble is that Republicans still embrace his policy vision. All the Republican candidates are running on a domestic platform centered around regressive, debt-financed tax cuts as the key to economic growth. With the exception of an increasingly marginalized Rand Paul, all advocate a “muscular,” “Reaganesque” foreign policy that provided the same template Bush followed to his political demise.

The fealty to Bushian foreign-policy doctrine caught Jeb Bush in a recent flub. Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked Bush whether, knowing what we do today, he still would have invaded Iraq. Bush affirmed that he would. What made Bush’s answer so strange is that the question was posed to him in the easiest way possible. Answering whether he was right to support the invasion given the intelligence available at the time would have been a hard question. Asking if it were right given the benefit of hindsight is simple. As Byron York points out, even Karl Rove and George W. Bush himself have strongly implied that they would not. Jeb positioned himself as more stubbornly supportive of the Bush administration than even the Bush administration itself. He is oddly more loyal to his brother’s legacy than his brother was to their father’s.

Republicans today embrace George W. Bush’s ideas but not the man himself. This leaves them with no living model of a successful presidency they can publicly identify. The question of which president they would choose is not a trick but a reflection of a stark reality: They have no evidence the demands of conservative ideology and practical governing success can be reconciled.