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RedBlueAmerica: Whither Reaganism?

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By JOEL MATHIS AND BEN BOYCHUK | Tribune News Service | Published: August 11, 2016

For 40 years, Ronald Reagan’s ideas — and the idea of Reagan — have guided the GOP: Republican candidates for offices high and low have claimed his mantle, and even Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have had to contend with his legacy.

But Donald Trump is a departure from that tradition, and in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback — who has taken Reagan’s tax-cutting philosophies to their limit — last week found himself repudiated at the polls when primary voters in his state chose to replace conservative Republicans with moderate challengers.

Does Reaganism have any life left? Why has it faltered? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the issue.

JOEL MATHIS

When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

For decades, all the GOP has had is Reaganism. While the political ideology may have been suited, in some ways, to its original times — government of the late 1970s really was sclerotic, taxes probably were too high, and the military definitely was mired in a post-Vietnam malaise — the 70s ended long ago.

More tax cuts won’t boost the economy the way they did back in the 1980s. Just look to Kansas, where Brownback’s tax-cutting spree has left government underfunded and produced anemic economic growth.

And deregulation can certainly go too far, as Americans found out when unconstrained big banks led the country, and the world, into the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

Fierce hawkishness, another tenet of Reaganism, can lead to unending folly, as the United States — with troops still stuck playing whack-a-mole in Iraq and Afghanistan — is reminded on a daily basis.

What’s left after that? Reagan’s sunny optimism and amnesty for illegal immigrants? His ability to raise taxes to avoid crippling government? Today’s Republican Party has rejected all of that. Today’s Trumpist GOP is a snarling ball of angry, anti-immigrant fury that stokes fear at every opportunity.

The clearest sign of the Republican Party’s exhaustion: The Democratic Party isn’t acting afraid anymore. Hillary Clinton isn’t declaring that “the era of big government is over.” Obama is ending a presidency that saw the passage of a universal health care bill and gay rights make huge, unheard-of advances.

During the George W. Bush administration, conservatives were fond of asserting that this is a center-right country, and Democrats often seemed to believe them. Now? Well, it’s telling that Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, made Clinton work so hard for the party’s presidential nomination.

Long story short: Reaganism long ago lost its usefulness, and Republican voters caught on before their party leaders did. The result? Trumpism. GOP leaders need to find a new tool, and soon, or the future will bring them, and us, more of the same.

BEN BOYCHUK

Republicans sometimes make fun of liberal Democrats for being stuck in 1965 or, for voters of a certain age, 1932. Yet for too many Republicans, it’s always 1980 or 1984.

It’s true. Many Republicans, especially Republican presidential candidates, use Reagan’s name like an incantation. Simply say the 40th president’s name often and reverently enough, promise to cut taxes, and the votes will appear like magic, the thinking seems to go.

Ask Ted Cruz how that strategy worked for him. Or Marco Rubio. Or poor Jeb Bush.

Trump doesn’t invoke Reagan the way other Republicans do. He doesn’t talk about Reagan at all. Why not? Well, part of the reason may be that Trump never liked Reagan very much and famously dismissed the 40th president in “The Art of the Deal” as a “con man” who couldn’t “deliver the goods.” (Years later, Trump would appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program and claim Reagan as his favorite president.)

But it’s also the case that Reagan was the right man with the right policies at the right time. He was a unique politician and quite unlike many Republicans of the time.

Trump doesn’t need Reagan to legitimize his campaign or his movement. Trump is making his own way.

My colleague Chris Buskirk argued at the website American Greatness the other day that it’s high time for conservatives to finally accept that the Gipper isn’t coming back. He served his purpose. But it’s time to move on.

“Yes, we honor his work and respect the man and the movement that made him president,” Buskirk wrote. “But conservatives have too easily retreated to a posture of nostalgia for a golden age that never really existed. Worse, most Americans don’t care about all of the paeans to Reagan offered by the faithful — they want a political movement that speaks to today’s issues.”

Trump is a mess as a candidate. But he resonates with voters, including people who would have been Reagan Democrats 30 years ago, in a way no politician has in a long time. Trump may not win, but Trumpism isn’t going away.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is a writer living in Kansas. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel

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