The Republican Party has a bigger problem than Donald Trump: It hasn’t figured out what it wants to be.
GOP candidates still worship the legacy of Ronald Reagan, and cast themselves as Reagan’s heirs; there’s hardly a GOP stump speech in Iowa or New Hampshire that doesn’t invoke the 40th president’s name. “Every Republican likes to think he or she is the next Ronald Reagan,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul noted last year.
But there’s little consensus among conservatives about what Reaganism means in 2015 beyond the basic principles of small government and lower taxes.
When Reagan arrived in the White House 34 years ago, the top federal tax rate was 70 percent and the economy was crippled by inflation and recession. Now the top tax rate is below 40 percent and the main economic problem is stagnant middle class incomes.
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What Would Ronnie Do? The candidates can’t agree.
“The core of the Republican debate is over what Reaganism means today,” said Henry Olsen, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “And the major candidates are giving quite different answers.”
Confusingly, each of the leading candidates can claim to represent at least one facet of their favorite modern president.
Jeb Bush is campaigning as Reagan the conciliator, an optimistic conservative who reached out to nonbelievers. But his measured tone – and his last name – have reduced his appeal to the right-wing base.
“There’s an element of anger among many conservatives that wasn’t present 15 years ago, but Bush seems to find it incomprehensible,” Olsen said.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is campaigning as Reagan the innovator; he’s done more than any other candidate to roll out new proposals, including a tax reform plan (co-written with Sen. Mike Lee of Utah) that would lower taxes for families with children. But that’s landed him in trouble with those who think the Gipper would have wanted to cut tax rates deeply instead; the Wall Street Journal editorial page condemned Rubio’s idea as “redistribution.”
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is campaigning as Reagan the combative governor, an outsider who made his state government smaller. He’s likened his fight with public employee unions to Reagan’s decision to break the federal air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981.
And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is campaigning as Reagan the ideologue, a conservative who – unlike the real Reagan – disdains the idea of compromise even in his own party. (He’s proposed a flat tax, which would lower rates on the affluent but raise them on lower-income taxpayers.) “Nobody quotes Reagan more and understands him less,” Olsen jibed.
There are more candidates – from the relatively moderate Ohio Gov. John Kasich to the libertarian Paul to the social conservative Rick Santorum – who also consider themselves Reaganites. And they might all be right. Reagan’s White House included conservatives of many different stripes, from the pugnacious Patrick J. Buchanan to the pragmatic James A. Baker III.
So when Republicans vote in primaries and caucuses next year, they'll be choosing one version of Reaganism over another, but that may not be the most important choice they make.
Equally important will be the temperament of the candidate they pick, especially his or her ability to reknit a fractious party back together.
There’s nothing wrong with vigorous intra-party debate, of course. But today’s GOP is fragmented into at least five factions: libertarians, social conservatives, tea party conservatives, establishment conservatives and moderate conservatives. And that could make the process of unifying the party around a nominee longer and more difficult than it has been in the past.
When Reagan ran in 1980, there were only seven candidates in the race; this year there are 16. And many of them have access to seemingly endless supplies of money, which means they won’t feel much pressure to drop out even if they fare badly.
If Republicans are lucky, the winner will be a candidate who not only updates Reagan’s message, but also shares his ability to unify his party and broaden its appeal. That, too – not just the ability to communicate a conservative ideology – was Reagan’s political genius.
Doyle McManus, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.