KSP Op-ed in Politico

by admin on March 7, 2010


If Colin Powell were ever to become president, Grover Norquist famously joked in the 1990s, it would be as if Ronald Reagan never lived and Nelson Rockefeller never died.

What a difference a decade makes. Today, with the tea party voters fermenting a spicy brew of family feud politics, the Republican Party’s troubles come not from the moderate middle but from the libertarian right.

A great myth of American political history holds that a direct path can be traced from the Barry Goldwater revolution to the Ronald Reagan majority. In this conventional wisdom, Barry and Ronnie were kindred political spirits, if not close personal friends. According to this account, Goldwater served as a kind of Moses, leading conservatives out of the wilderness, while Reagan played Joshua and led them into the Promised Land.

The real story is less simple and more interesting. As Reagan’s star in conservatism’s constellation began to eclipse Goldwater’s in the 1970s, the two men often seemed more like rivals than friends. During the 1976 Republican presidential primary, Goldwater aggressively denounced Reagan’s signature issue and said that the Gipper’s views on the Panama Canal reflected “a surprisingly dangerous state of mind.”

And for much of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s, Goldwater continued to serve as an in-house critic. He complained about Reagan’s conservative social values and feared his party had been taken over by the religious right, whom he called “a bunch of kooks.”

What happened to the straight path from Goldwater to Reagan? It turns out to have been more of a winding, jagged off-road. Goldwater preached a libertarian brand of opposition politics, while Reagan practiced a conservative creed designed to build a majority. To achieve a realignment, Reagan understood he needed to reach new voters with new issues. He did this first on economic policy, where he moved the GOP away from its traditional austerity economics and toward a prosperity economics.

Instead of just emphasizing budget cuts, he would emphasize tax cuts and reach working-class voters who were struggling with their tax bills. He went on to cultural issues, where he welcomed voters of faith who had previously supported Jimmy Carter. And Reagan matched Goldwater’s anger at the American government with his own optimism in the American people.

In short, where Goldwater wanted to complain, Reagan wanted to govern; where Goldwater offered a protest, Reagan offered a program. As a result, Reagan transformed Goldwater’s 40 percent vote in 1964 into a 60 percent majority in 1984.

In this way, Reagan closely reflected the writings of Russell Kirk, who in the 1950s exhumed 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke and gave conservatism an intellectual founding father. Burke, according to Kirk, believed in the “negation of ideology.” Instead of an ideological litmus test, Burke offered conservatives a way to respond to new challenges by pursuing evolutionary change, which explains Reagan’s penchant for incrementally changing his party to meet the times.

To be fair, today’s tea party activists offer some much-needed idealism about the size and scope of the government, the security of the borders and the best means of taxation. But when tea partiers confuse rage with reason and fail to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats, they edge closer to permanent minority status.

The recent Texas primary shows that many tea party voters understand this and want to win. When Debra Medina botched an answer to an easy question from Glenn Beck about the Sept. 11 attacks, many of her voters moved to Rick Perry, allowing the governor to win the primary without a runoff in a three-person race. Medina’s modest showing proves that many tea partiers want to do more than just make a statement; they want to make a difference.

And the only way to do that is when their protest movement is attached to a larger conservative majority that can reach people beyond the tea party rallies.

Otherwise, if the tea party takes over the GOP, it will be as if Ronald Reagan never lived and Barry Goldwater never died.

Kasey S. Pipes, the Norris research fellow at the Eisenhower Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Building Community, is the author of “Ike’s Final Battle.” He began his career as an intern for President Ronald Reagan.

Previous post:

Next post: