We Need to Move Beyond Reagan

Bottom Line Up Front: No matter what America's short term future holds (a liberal White House, a liberal Congress, etc.), the long term future of the conservative movement depends on our ability to evolve in substance and unify around principles, not personalities.

Anybody who blogs on this site can list the reasons why they're an American conservative. In fact, many conservatives who don't blog, or those who don't even know what a blog is, can list their reasons with an adequate level of logic in their explanation. But not every conservative is called to be part of a conservative movement; or, more importantly, not every conservative is attracted to be a participant of one or more parts of the conservative movement.

The reason I was attracted to the conservative movement as a student at the beginning of this decade was because I felt that the Right, significantly more so than the Left, had a better combination of message and infrastructure that could consistently win elections and legislative battles. One of the reasons why? It seemed to me at the time that the Right was a lot more concerned with principles than personalities when it came to political battles, the old cliche being that "Democrats fall in love, and Republicans fall in line." The Right has lost this advantage, not only because of the Democrats have successfully evolved their infrastructure to fit modern times, as Jon Henke notes; conservatives have also become intellectually lazy. Case in point: our movement's continuing love affair with Ronald Reagan.

Don't get me wrong: I believe that Reagan was one of the greatest American Presidents of all time, and his personal abilities tethered to his steadfast defense of conservative principles in government should always be lauded. But last weekend, I attended the Americans for Prosperity - Defending the American Dream Summit, where they had a dinner in tribute to the 40th President of the United States. I have to admit I felt this sense of discomfort and anxiety during the dinner because of the loud and raucous cheering during the videos they played of Reagan's speeches and the aura of nostalgia for the Reagan years. But I left the dinner hopeful that this dinner was just a tribute and that great organizations like AFP had the full knowledge that different work needed to be done to carry the movement forward.

Then came today, when a friend on Facebook posted a status update linking me to the Heritage Foundation's new website: What Would Reagan Do?

To give some context to how I felt this afternoon once I clicked on the website, let me tell a short story. When I was in school not too long ago, I was required to take a philosophy course. I pared it down to two choices: a class called "Issues and Ethics" with Harvey Mansfield and Bill Kristol, two stalwarts of the conservtive movement, or a class called "Ethics and International Relations" with Stanley Hoffman, a very elderly liberal professor. I decided that it would be best for me to take the liberal professor's class instead of the Mansfield/Kristol class because it would be helpful to know how the other side processed philosophical thought. It was the spring semester of 2003, and we were beginning our war with Iraq ... so the "Ethics and Interntional Relations" lectures became more interesting. One day, our professor asked a simple, but ridiculous question: "What would Kant say about the war in Iraq?" Everyone else in the class started bloviating on how this war applied to the categorical imperative. I raised my hand and said the following: Kant wouldn't know what to think. Kant wouldn't know how to handle an irrational leader of a nation. Kant would be confused as to the concept of a UN Security Council resolution. And finally, Kant could not deal with the concept of a weapon of mass destruction. Sure, you could extrapolate, but that means you would have to make several assumptions and bald extensions of what Kant meant in his writings.

So, why was I a little uncomfortable with Heritage's new website? Well, the fact is we can't extrapolate what Ronald Reagan would do. Yes, the conservative principles that he defended and executed during his time in the White House are important to reflect on. But principles alone can't deal with new situations and new crises. This is why I wasn't ever a fan of Hillary Clinton's or John McCain's argument of "being ready on day one." No one is ever ready on day one to be President Why? Because every President faces different challenges, different opportunities and different crises which requies a combination of good principles (which AFP and Heritage are keynoting) and great creativity in problem-solving. Having principles without creativity in public policy formulation is like trying to run an engine without oil. The point? The conservative movement doesn't need a replacement engine; we need an oil change.

Again, don't get me wrong. Heritage is a wonderful organization doing wonderful work. But the problem with our movement now is something that Mitt Romney said last year during the primary campaign: "Republicans need to stop acting like Democrats. Republicans need to start acting like Republicans again." Of course, this is true at the substantive level with the greed, corruption and over-spending of Republicans of the last decade. But it's also been somewhat true when it comes to the status of our movement: the Right has become stagnant because while we still have superior principles, we have become lazy when it comes to coming up with new solutions and communicating those solutions in an effective way.

So, what are four things that we can do to help the Right move beyond the nostalgia of Ronald Reagan?

First, we need to stop being defensive and start going on the offensive again when it comes to our grassroots work. Jon Henke puts it beautifully in his last blog post:

"The Right is behaving like a company within a declining industry, which focuses on increasing market share, rather than expanding the actual market itself.  Declining industries are defensive, seeking tradition and efficiency rather than innovation.  The Right - and the Republican Party - is trying to manage the decline by consolidating successes and attacking their opponent to limit the Left's market share."

This is exactly the problem with the "51% is enough" strategy. Give credit to Howard Dean and his 50 state strategy for not conceding defeat in any area of the country. We need to have a 50 state strategy, but in a different manner. As I have posted before, we need to start building our GOP farm team to not only help identify potential political talent, but also to help identify important local and state issues. We have to start thinking that state legilative and city council races are just as important as statewide and presidential elections. Playing small ball is just as important as playing large ball, and can benefit large ball campaigns in the future.

Second, we need to start merging our grassroots with our netroots. I've blogged on this previously too, and I feel that the Right has a much better opportunity to merge the two than the Left. The grassroots and the netroots of the Left are still very much two different (often battling) factions, because they are now in a position where they could have an influence in governing ... leading to some arguments over how they should govern. Conservatives know how we should govern because we have great principles. But the grassroots and the netroots of the Right can work together to be creative about solutions when it comes to foreign policy, social policy and economic policy.

Third, as repeated three times by now, we have to stop being intellectually lazy, and start thinking and working hard on how the problems history has presented us should be solved. My governing philosophy has always been that it's not up to government to make history; it's government's job to know how to react to history: new opportunities and new challenges. Example: while I was against the bailout, the House Republican Conference came up with great ideas that could improve transparency within the financial system. We can start to come up with solutions on issues that have traditionally been strong suits for Democrats: promote new options of choice and competition in educaton beyond vouchers, give new incentives to reduce the number of uninsured in this country beyond the McCain health credit proposal (which is still a great idea), and spur innovtion and job creation, not through plain old public works projects that often get earmarked, but by providing broad based tax and economic reform that can give everybody a fair shake at succeeding. Our tax system picks winners and losers ... and it shouldn't be governments job to promote social policy through the tax code.

Fourth, and most importantly, we have to stop conceding the academic and intellectual battleground. Major universities, and academic thought overall, are now branded as liberal/progressive. Rightfully so, not because conservatives have been branded by the American public as "stupid," but because conservatives have not made the effort to start battling again in classrooms, academic publications, and intellectual forums. Liberals intellectuals come up with many great pieces of work, but all with the wrong direction in mind: the goal of a eutopia where everybody experiences equality of condition. Conservative intellectuals of old promoted realism and pragmatism as working conditions to any thought because they feel like I do: that it is not our job to make history, it's our job to react intelligently to history. We need a resurgence in conservative thought beyond what is already out there. We need to be willing to fight liberals on their own battlefield.

These are long term proposals that require much thought, and less laziness. It's too easy to look back to the "greatness of Reagan." It's too easy to talk only about principles and not solutions. Soren observed two things earlier this week from the AFP conference that resonate with me:

"No one sees who the groups will be. Furthermore, the old conservative movement leaders weren’t there. I saw Grover Norquist and Ed Meese, but I didn’t see Morton Blackwell, Paul Weyrich, Ed Feulner, or similar figures. Interestingly, the old conservative movement leaders who were there were Reagan people but not Goldwater people. Many of the old conservative movement institutions predated Reagan.

"The fact that those leaders weren’t there raises the question: who will be the next leaders. None of these groups have a credible succession plan. The stature of these groups will likely collapse. National Review, which does have some wonderful people but cannot be said to be the opinion leader it once was, was cited repeatedly as an example."

Let's start thinking about "the change we need." The engine is just fine; we just need some new oil.

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Matt, thats a wonderful analogy.

Thanks for the great post. Its been refreshing to read this and some of the other recent posts that are not so current campaign centric.  As I have been suffering from some campaign overload fatigue.  Truly a post for "The Next Right".  Once again, thanks.

Did you really mean to say this?

Did you really mean to say this:

The reason I was attracted to the conservative movement as a student at the beginning of this decade was because I felt that the Right, significantly more so than the Left, had a better combination of message and infrastructure that could consistently win elections and legislative battles.

This is pragmatism, not conservatism.

As to your other point, I am fed up with the Reagan stuff myself, but it's probably generational. People don't remember the pre-Reagan conservatives. To a Goldwater Republican, Reagan represents a failure to translate principle into governance. He set a tone, he directed some actions correctly, but he did not show us how conservatives can restructure government...

Heritage does good work but fuels "the movement" and if you are in a room full of "movement conservatives" and the clapping starts, you may as well be in a Politburo meeting. Go ahead and clap and smile and don't be the first one to stop.

Here's a start

From a market-loving liberal who admires this site, to market-loving conservatives:

If you want to reduce regulation and make government smaller/less intrusive, propose *smart* regulation (especially of the financial industry), which obviates the need for stupid regulation.

My pet, and a good example: make it illegal for ratings agencies to take money from the issuers of the securities they're rating. Or at least require a cigarette-style warning on each of those bought-and-paid-for, collusively prepared ratings.


1. Relatively easy to manage and enforce.

2. While it will destroy the rating agencies' business model (as it should), in the process it will create a market for objective ratings that actually have value and make the market operate more efficiently.

3. It is not intrusive on a large industry.

4. It will have a salutary effect on a large industry--rippling and amplifying up the food chain, so the market won't let mortgage shops pawn off falsely-rated risk.

5. It could obviate the need for federal regulation of all those mortgage shops. (They're currently sorta kinda regulated--loosely and erratically--by the states.) The ratings agency regs might cause the market to give proper price signals, and etc.

You may not agree with this particular proposal. But proposing smart government is the best thing you can do to promulgate small government.

That's actually what all of us should be doing--making government better. No facile, easy fantasy wins, like just cutting taxes or legislating CEO pay. Nuts and bolts, roll-up-your-sleeves, messy policy work.



If McCain and the Republicans Acted Like Reagan

They would be ahead in the polls and not hanging on for dear life.

If Reagan makes Mr. Moon woozy I fear to think how the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and Barry Goldwater impact on him.

There are plenty of innovative policies based on conservative principles but there are very few politicians who are willing to implement them.

The heart of conservatism is looking backwards to learn from the past and to carry forth what is good. These days, would be conservatives argue that slowing the rate of the growth of government is a substitute for reducing the size of government.

When Goldwater and Reagan became champions of less government, patriotism, and individual responsibility they did so at a time when common sense told the politicians that you can't  run against the New Deal and the United Nations and win. This did not deter Goldwater, Reagan, Ashbrook, Kirkpatrick,etc. they set out to present a view of the world that was counter to view of the Main Stream Media and they won.

The Left's current agenda is not creative at all. It is a throwback to the socialist mentality of the New Deal. It is infused with large doses of anti-Americanism and the belief that the basic tenets of Western Civilization (including the traditional family) should be abandoned. Throw into this mix a view of our country that is negative and inferior to those of our enemies.

We lose the debate every time we fall into the trap of trying to compete with the Left on their ground. No we shouldn't be engage in a numbers game related to the uninsured -- we should be pointing out that most of the uninsured choose to spend their money on things other than insurance.

We should be educating the nation about the virtues of the Constitution and the need to emulate much of what Washington and the Founders taught us about the need to guard against the expansion of government and the need to maintain a nation with a strong moral foundation. John Adams, not one of the most religious of the Founders, declared that our system of government can not survive without a strong belief in God.

The almost across the board support for the bail-out by conservatives from Heritage, to the Wall Street Journal, and Larry Kudlow showed how weak our commitment to conservative principles has become among our conservative elites. While the Republicans in the House provided some good window dressing for the Paulson plan it was not enough by a long-shot to justify the Government taking equity positions in our banks. They should have voted against the plan and made Pelosi round up her Democrats instead of providing her with Republican cover.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming popular opposition to the plan is proof that a majority of Americans agree with the conservative notions that government is not always an answer to our problems. Now there are several would be conservative House members in Republican districts who are in trouble because they took the liberal road.

One more Reagan lesson we should learn. When our team is on the field we should not be giving aid and comfort to the enemy by dwelling on our shortcomings. Patrick Ruffini's recent post on Palin is must reading. There are "conservative writers" today who spend more time deprecating Sara Palin than do on criticizing Obama.


Here, Here! Well said my man.

Although I'm not much of a social consertavive myself this reponse was right on the money.  That is the problem with the conservative movement today.  It is too bad that the right almost always chooses to follow the narrative of the left and try to compete on their terms.  The whole prinicple that we have to compete in the ivory tower elite world of academe is absurd.  Most of today's major colleges and universities have been co-opted by the leftist dogma of political correctness.  Through a dangerous philosophical mixture of multiculturalism, moral relativism and secular humanism combined with afrocentric and Islamofascist agologism as well other radical "identity politics"  (so-called) intellectual movements, tolerance of ideologies that run counter to this anti-white male, anti-Western cultural marxism (complete with its own racist undertones while its pseudo-intellectual supporters foolishly deny the blatant hypocrisy therein) will not be allowed.

Consequently it can not and will not tolerate dissent.  Conserative speakers who dare show up at any major university will be shout down and hatefully harassed by non-thinking student leftists.  Through sheer emotional reponse brought about by pseudo-academic propaganda  (which it precisely is because it rejects the formal rules of proper debate and discussion)  from within the classroom.  Very rarely do professors allow one to even make the argument and will often reject it out of hand while refusing to even listen to, much less give credence to any supporting arguments you have.  You simply are going to have to offer alternative institutions of classically liberal forms of higher education in order to have shot at doing this.  That of course is easier said than done.

Meanwhile I find it amusing that we are dicussing ways to try to imitate the Left's internet  activism.  I remember liberal pundits claiming after the 1994 elections that they were the result of too much "wired up,  hyperdemocracy".  Now they are the domain of the left and it is supposedly a good thing in their view.  I  personally wish the left would start thinking again and stop projecting that negative attribute upon their opponets through their egotistical pretensions of moral and intelectual superiority.

"It was the spring semester of 2003...

"...It was the spring semester of 2003, and we were beginning our war with Iraq ... "

Its my view that many of our young conservative movers and shakers these days working within political movements/orgs would be much better off if they had put on a uniform and served in Iraq.  Rather than sitting in some liberal prof's classroom.  Not necessarily walking down the streets of Fallujah but simply serving.  In any branch or any post.  Peeling potato's in a mess hall in Alaska.  Or fixing electronic components on an aircraft carrier.  Even as a first responder for 5 years - fire/police.  You'd be a hero to me.  It teaches humility which is in short supply these days.   Then when you come out of the military, spend a few years in commissioned sales.  Living off of your wits.  After real life  experiences like that, then you will be ready to mightily contribute to some political movement.

So if some of you young "able bodied" conservatives males are under 34 ( I think thats the cutoff age), consider raising your right hand and swearing in. Especially if you're single.   Its not too late.  If you reach old age having not served, you're going to have severe regrets. 

Reagan served.  His whole life was about service.  I agree that if he were alive today he'd tell us that we have our own set of problem and we need to come up w/solutions.  But the thing we in the GOP need to learn and take from Reagan was his true caring attitude for the Base.  He deeply cared for the Base supporters.  Respected them.  Unlike those today who have contempt for the base. DD

Reagan was a man of principle

That's why we're all still in love with him. It's hard to trump nostalgia when our party's leaders today pander to greedy geezers who are doing a great job of making sure our generation will pay far higher taxes than they ever did so we can support them for their decades of inactivity. Nevermind that we'll probably see little to no government returns when it's our turn to retire.

I will always believe in the free market. So when our man for president prattles about the "greed" of Wall Street causing the economic crisis - how can I not make jokes about resurrecting Ronnie for the ticket?

We don't need to move beyond, we need to move back to.


"We need to move back"

Is exactly what "Conservative" means:  Conserve the present and recent past.

Conservatives do great when fear paralyzes political systems, and people want the safety of the old.  That was the case after 911.

Conservatives do terrible when people want a new direction, a change from oppressive, for-the-rich-and-powerful principles and government that Conservatism (it enshrines the ruling class) inevitably brings.

Why did Karl Rove focus on themes like "terror" "islamofascism" "fight them there so you wont have to fight them here" in 2004?  To make Americans more afraid, and more likely to look to Conservatives for leadership.

To me, Ronald Reagan was among the three worst Presidents of the 20th Century, even among inept competition like Harding, Coolidge, Taft, and McKinley, Republicans all.  But it will be awhile til someone does as bad a job as W.  And I hope  never see it.

Maybe I'm Crazy

But I'm pretty sure the Democrats' model for, well, everything is a series of programs that were implemented seventy-five years ago (and didn't work all that well back then, a story for another post).  We can argue the value of tradition on cultural issues and I'll probably end up agreeing more with you than most conservatives, but on economic issues it is the conservatives that are the party of dynamism and experimentation while the Democrats are the party of security over liberty, statism, and stultification. 

Conservatives and Economic Issues

Every historical Economic indicator from the DOW to the NASDAQ to GDP to jobs created to growth of new businesses to tax revenue says you're mistaken.  Dems are MUCH better for the US Economy.






Makes Sense

Only if you're making a partisan point. Did Bill Clinton make the dotcom bubble? If so, can we blame it for it bursting. You want to blame George W. Bush for 9/11? Nixon was stupid on economics and probably had something to do with Dow performance.

However, the S&P under Reagan/Bush 1 outperformed the LBJ and Carter easily.

stupid anti-GOP chart misses the real stock market story

This chart is dumb for many reasons:

1. It's hand selected to start with the worst performing stock market president ever, when starting at the top of a stock market bubble is the most distortive place to start a chart. But The idea that we should rate today's Republicans based on a President who presided before our parents were born is a real stretch. And btw, if you include Hoover, why not Harding, Coolidge, and Wilson?? We know why - it would make Republicans look better. Coolidge had the highest stock market returns of any President in history (and just happens to be the President before the cutoff in this chart): The stock market rose by almost 3 times over 5 years, about a 23% average return.

See this critique - the difference shrinks to almost nothing ($217,000 for Democrats, $156,000 for Republicans) by extending back further.


It gets really interesting if you extend the timeline back and make your initial investment in 1897. Now we see that the crash of 1929 was really the bursting of a bubble: the 12 Republican years of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover were a wild ride, but more or less a wash in the end. (The Dow’s peak in 1929 would not be seen again until 1954! Imagine, 25 years including the worst depression and the greatest war the world has ever seen, and in all that time the stock market never reached the level it had for a few giddy months in 1929. Will it be 25 years before we match the Dow’s high of 2008?)

The wild ride is another way of saying the late 1920s stock market bubble and bursting was at work, and measuring only half of that distorts the numbers.

2. Looking at Presidents only ignores the Congressional effect. If you go by the congress, you will find that Gingrich Congress was quite successful, so was the Republican Congress from 2003 to 2007. But since 2007, the Democrats in Congress have presided over a significant drop in the stock market.  A mutual fund "The Congressional effect" notes that

Likewise, it is not surprising that the stock market did well under Truman, as the conservative post-WWII Congress did a lot to "free up the economy" from the ravages of the New Deal. Note that FDR had the best baseline to work from ever, a stock market that dropped 90% 4 years prior, yet still had a mediocre return. The reason is simple: The New Deal was actually economic snake oil, it did no good and the economy sputtered along, making a recession into a 'great depression'.

3. YOU CANNOT IGNORE INFLATION. Historically, Democrats create more inflation. That boosts dollar denomiated returns artificially. It's just been their thing, either due to the Fed boards they've appointed or other mis-management factors. The #1 example was Jimmy Carter. In after-inflation real terms, Jimmy carter had the most negative stock market returns since Herbert Hoover. As a result, the REAL stock market returns favor the Republicans.


Furthermore, if you go back to Taft, you will see negative returns under Wilson as well, and a Republican advantage of $50,000 versus $25,000 in the after inflation return.

4. Lastly, we have to return to the fact of policies not party labels deciding stock market returns. It's not the party label its the actions they took that matter. Hoover and GHW Bush raised taxes. Hoover raised tarriffs.  Nixon imposed wage and price controls. Once Gingrich took control of the Congress in 1994, we had a Government that was shrinking as a %age of GDP for the first time in decades! We see clear trends:

0) Harding and Coolidge policies of lower taxes after Wilson's failed economic policies created a boom

1) The failed Hoover administration and New Deal of high taxes, tariffs and intervention kept returns sub-par from 1930 to 1945.

2) Post WWII relaxation of Govt control of economy, from the Republican Congress of late 1940s right through to the Kennedy tax cuts, were good for the stock market. Free trade helped.

3) Johnson's Great Society and Nixon's wage and price controls and Jimmy carter's inept monetary policies hurt the economy and markets.

4) Reaganomics worked. Reagan's tax cuts and the deregulation of 1980s and 1990s put the economy on a big upswing. Clinton's policies, once he was paired with conservative Gingrich, followed the Reagan path more than deviated.

5) Under GWBush we have had tax cuts, but also increased regulation (Sarbanes-Oxley) and a govt-induced housing meltdown (due to CRA and subprime lending) that was fueled by Govt meddling and lax monetary policy.

The recipe for a good real return in the stock market is clear: Low tax rates, smaller Government, hard money monetary policies, and less regulation. It doesnt matter which party implements those policies or does not. that's the recipe that works.

Obama's economics are Hoovernomics: Higher tax rates - his tax plan, a bogus govt giveaway marketed as a 'tax cut', will actually raise marginal tax rates on the middle class; he promises more regulation, higher spending, less free trade, and with more bailouts, a poor fiscal and monetary position. There is very little reason to hang hopes for a good stock market return under obama, unless we get a Republican Congress along to hem Obama in.


Statistical anomalies

With wildly divergent results like this, you usually drop the highest and lowest performances, presuming they are aberrations.

So, you'd remove Hoover (the lowest) and Clinton (the highest) from the list. This guy removed Hoover, but not Clinton.

When you do this, you find that the other Democratic presidents were in the 8.2% to 7.5% range; while the Republicans had four presidents in the 10% plus range, and two that lost ground.

Now, a word about timing. Bush 43 assumed office as the dot com bubble receded; he was starting from a high base. On the other hand, FDR assumed at a point when the Dow had been crushed (see Hoover). The market , however, failed to go up under FDR as fast as it went down under Hoover.

Now finally, let's adjust for GOP congressional control. The large decline under Bush 43 (post 2006) occurred under Democratic congressional control; the large increase under Clinton (post 1994) occurred under Republican congressional control. (Thank you Newt Gingrich)  Nixon never had control of the Congress, while two of the other  GOP presidents (Reagan and Ike) had at least control of the Senate during part of their tenure.(and, jeez, better results?)  Are we to presume the Congress plays no role in the economy?  The chart assumes as much

Jim Dandy copied a sharp looking chart which sadly, is pretty much GIGO

All good points on the GIGO chart

1) The anomalies & timing - add in Coolidge or take away Hoover and you have balanced out the stock market ride of the late 1920s.

2) Congressional effect.  I dont think Nixon was very good on domestic, but a good point you make that Nixon had a Democrat Congress to contend with the whole time.

3) The one you didnt mention and I did in my longer post on this is inflation. Once you throw inflation in the mix the Democrat 'advantage' disappears into a big disadvantage. Carternomics was a failure.

Those 3 factors put this chart squarely in the Twain-style "lies, damned lies, and statistics" category of statistics.


Coolidge - best stock market President ever - 23% annual gain

" To me, Ronald Reagan was among the three worst Presidents of the 20th Century,"Then you are an idiot barely worth talking to. Reagan salvaged the economy and helped end and win the Cold War without a shot fired. FDR and a host of Democrat demagogues couldnt do what he did.

And if you are judging presidents by stock market return - the best President in our history was Republican President Calvin Coolidge!