If there’s anything we thought we knew about the GOP, it is that it is the party of Reagan.
Paying obeisance to Ronald Reagan — his memory, his accomplishments, his policies — has long been the price of entry to Republican presidential politics. Yet here comes Donald Trump, who gives no indication of caring the slightest about Reagan’s legacy, and he has rampaged to front-runner status anyway.
It is like Trump set out to kick down the door of the House of Reagan and the structure teetered to the brink of collapse, more decrepit than anyone had noticed.
What Trump has discovered is that many conservatives aren’t as attached to conservative policies as they seemed; that labels don’t mean much to voters; that you can bring new people into the Republican coalition instead of playing by the old rules; and that at least a significant plurality of primary voters don’t care whether you bend your knee to the memory of Ronald Reagan.
In fact, Trump is showing how a secular Northeastern moderate can threaten for the Republican nomination as long as he says he’s pro-life and pro-gun and taps voter anger and the right’s hatred of the media. It is astonishing that Trump has signaled that everything is negotiable and he will be the consummate deal-maker and yet has gotten cover from elements of the conservative media that, until now, were most hostile to perceived ideological deviations and to Washington deal-making. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t try this at home.
For their part, Trump’s rivals are — for understandable reasons — beholden to a Reagan nostalgia that has long been prevalent on the right.
Their Reagan references stir the hearts of the old faithful (like me). But with every passing year, they become a little less relevant to everyone else.
It isn’t why they are losing, but Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have been fighting back against Trump with messages that run in well-worn ruts. It’s always a shining city on a hill. And morning again in America. Such is the hold that the morning-again theme has on the Republican imagination that, bizarrely, Rubio ran a “Morning Again in America” ad — about how bad things are in the country.
Is it too much to ask that Republican politicians come up with some of their own lines? At times, Cruz sounds like the entire rationale of his candidacy is to reassemble what he calls “the old Reagan coalition.” Meanwhile, Trump is putting together a new coalition by not talking about Reagan at all.
Conservatives need to realize that all of America is not the CPAC ballroom. To save Reaganism, conservatives must broaden and deepen our understanding of Reagan. As writer Dan McLaughlin notes, “Reagan didn’t go around on the stump pledging fealty to conservative ideals, but rather explaining why his ideas would work in practice and why they were common-sense positions in line with what the voters already believed in.”
A new, updated version of this approach is imperative, given the new voters identified by Donald Trump and the blue-collar discontent that he has made impossible to ignore. Like Reagan did, conservatives must adopt policies that address the problems of today — and sell them not as the artifacts of an ideological orthodoxy, but as practical solutions. They must reject Trump and his grotesque distortions of conservatism, while paying heed to his voters.
At a CPAC speech in 1977, Reagan talked about broadening the party: “If we are to attract more working men and women of this country, we will do so not by simply ‘making room’ for them, but by making certain they have a say in what goes on in the party.”
That has to be the attitude of the GOP and of the non-Trump presidential candidates. If they don’t understand that out of self-interest or basic political horse sense, well, there’s always another compelling reason: It is what Ronald Reagan would do.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.