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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Republican Strategy From the Way-Back Machine

One of the settled rituals of the Republican Party is to refer constantly and almost exclusively to Ronald Reagan as the lodestar of conservative ideology, communications and governance. It’s gotten to the point where you half-expect a Republican audience to quickly bow heads at every mention of his name, like some Christians do at church when Jesus is mentioned.
But for all the hagiography, memories of Reagan’s actual career are sometimes hazy or inaccurate, and don’t offer a lot of specific guidance for political strategy, other than “optimism” and “winning.” That’s why Noemie Emery’s long article in The Weekly Standard , offering Reagan’s pre-presidential politics between his unsuccessful 1976 primary bid and his victory in 1980 as a template for today’s Republicans, is of particular interest.
The parallels between the Republicans of 1977 and those of 2009 noted by Emery are pretty obvious. They’d just lost two straight national elections after a period of great optimism about their ability to create an enduring majority. They’d lost the White House after holding it for eight years, and were in a weak minority position in both Houses of Congress. Emery doesn’t mention this, but they were also in the shadow of a intensely disliked former president, though the Ford interregnum had helped put Nixon in the past. And there were all sorts of messy intraparty disputes that had been simmering for a while.
She does not, however, mention (beyond an exaggeration of Carter’s political luster upon taking office) some dynamics about the temporarily-ascendant Democrats of 1977 that aren’t necessarily paralleled today. Carter had very nearly lost the 1976 election to Gerald Ford after holding a huge early lead. His election was heavily dependent on winning southern states reacting to his “historic” candidacy as the first Deep South nominee since the Civil War–states that no knowledgeable observer expected to remain in the Democratic column in future elections. The ideological “sorting out” of the two parties that began in the 1960s was well under way, a development that offered nothing but grief to the ideologically diverse Democrats in the short term. And Democrats had controlled both Houses of Congress for twenty consecutive years.
It’s also probably not a stretch to observe that Jimmy Carter’s political skills–particularly in his dealings with Congress and with fellow-Democrats–were not quite up to the standards set so far by Barack Obama. Jimmy Carter’s image of fecklessness at home and abroad grew sharper with each year of his presidency, and was a large factor in Reagan’s 1980 victory (there’s a reason, after all, that Republicans still talk about Carter’s brief presidency as an object-lesson, much as Democrats will be talking about George W. Bush’s longer tenure for years to come). It will come as a rather gigantic surprise if Barack Obama faces a major challenge to his renomination, as Ted Kennedy posed to Jimmy Carter in 1980, or has to deal with a third-party candidate stripping away a significant number of liberal votes, as John Anderson did to Carter in the general election.
Moreover, Emery’s account of Reagan’s ideological positioning and messaging doesn’t seem immediately relevant to the needs of Republicans today. As Steve Benen observes today:

Emerie’s article doesn’t exactly offer modern Republican leaders a road map. According to the piece, Reagan, for example, spent much of 1977 emphasizing a hawkish approach to the Soviet Union. In 2009, there is no Cold War. In 1977, Reagan also encouraged the party to work in concert with the fledgling religious right movement. However, the religious right is no longer fledgling, it’s already part of the GOP coalition, and isn’t much of a movement anymore.

I’d add that even Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric and domestic agenda is hardly a panacea today. In 1977 the federal government had been steadily acquiring barnacles for 35 years. The top federal income tax rate was 70%. The number of violent crimes had more than doubled in the previous ten years, as had the number of Americans on public assistance. Just as importantly, the conservative domestic strategies that Reagan championed seemed fresh and new; neither of the previous three Republican presidents, Ford, Nixon and Eisenhower, had done much to change the New Deal or Great Society programs.
The spending buildup by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress underway may ultimately produce a comeback for anti-government rhetoric, but probably not so long as the economy is in a deep recession, and if the economy improves, it’s unlikely there will be much demand for a quick return to Republican governance.
If, of course, the entire Obama agenda dismally fails, or if there is some foreign-policy-oriented catastrophe, then obviously Republicans will have an opportunity to mount a big comeback. But that’s not a strategy for Republicans; it’s just a thinly disguised desire for bad times to get worse.
Emery’s more compelling set of lessons for today’s Republicans flow from her account of Reagan’s leadership style, which she breaks down into four components: (1) a focus on large central themes rather than individual issues or events; (2) a gracious and civil tone devoid of attacks on the opposition; (3) a relentless tone of optimism and a focus on the future; and (4) an ability to build up the conservative movement while building out a big-tent Republican Party into diverse constituencies.
But the question must be asked: are these qualities very evident in today’s breed of Republican leaders? I don’t think so. Today’s Republicans largely think of Reagan as a political winner with a charming personality who was a rigid ideologue. They don’t like to talk about his serial backdowns in budget confrontations; the two tax increases he signed during his first term; his appointment of “turncoat” Supreme Court nominees O’Conner and Kennedy; or his pattern of giving social conservatives rhetorical comfort rather than actual victories. And for all their admiration of his sunny personality, civility and optimism, they don’t seem capable of emulating these characteristics. Look at how the putative Republican presidential field for 2012 is behaving towards the Obama administration, towards Republican “moderates,” and most recently, towards Sonia Sotomayor, and see how much sunniness and civility and tolerance is being exhibited.
And that brings me to one final observation about Emery’s advice to Republicans: you can’t emulate “Reagan in opposition” without someone who is vaguely like Ronald Reagan. In 1977, Reagan had been the unquestioned leader of the conservative movement for a decade, and a major celebrity since at least the early 1940s. The conservative movement today is probably as factionalized as the GOP as a whole was in 1977, and the closest things they have to universally recognized celebrities are the serially-damaged Newt Gingrich and the highly-controversial Sarah Palin. In 2008 Mike Huckabee made a brief bid for the sunny-side Reagan heritage of the GOP, but is now sounding like a bitter and angry insurgent. The party’s most visible leaders at the moment are Rush Limbaugh, who spends much of his time acting as an ideological commissar lashing Republicans into craven submission, and Dick Cheney–chief of staff to Gerald Ford when he defeated Reagan in 1976–who could hardly be described as sunny or optimistic.
While Noemie Emery has injected some real history into the hagiography of Ronald Reagan, it’s by no means clear that his current worshipers are willing or able to follow his path.

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