Does Reagan still matter?

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Article Highlights

  • The country has changed since 1981, and the GOP's agenda should change with it.

    Tweet This

  • Republicans should do their homework.

    Tweet This

  • The GOP should make Americans an offer; explain to them what they'll get when they vote for Republicans.

    Tweet This

  • The Republican offer should respond to the actual challenges facing the country today.

    Tweet This

My Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson is the latest in a long line of commentators to urge the Republican Party to get over its nostalgia for President Ronald Reagan. And it's true that Republicans have tended to cling to an agenda that made sense in Reagan's time but is no longer compelling. The country has changed since 1981, and the party's agenda should change with it.

But that's not a case for forgetting Reagan. It's a case for thinking more carefully about the lessons of his career. Three of them that Republicans still need to learn come to mind.

First, Republicans should do their homework. Steven Hayward, author of a two-volume history called "The Age of Reagan," points out that Reagan worked much harder at devising his policy agenda, and figuring out how to communicate it, than have most Republicans since. It wasn't just rhetorical talent that earned him the label "the Great Communicator." He honed and honed. He took words seriously.

"Hard-working" was not an adjective that the conventional wisdom attached to Reagan during his presidency. He conveyed the impression that he wasn't working hard, and critics and caricaturists deepened it. But that was a deliberate choice on his part. It led foes to underestimate him, and it counteracted what he felt was the damaging perception the presidents of the 1970s had left: that the job had overwhelmed them. Today's Republicans should follow the real example, not the myth.

Second, the party should make Americans an offer -- explain to them what they'll get when they vote for Republicans. Reagan's offer was lower taxes, lower inflation, lower crime, increased economic growth and a stronger and more respected country. Importantly, that offer included benefits that were direct and tangible: If enough of you vote for me, you'll get to keep more of your money.

Contemporary Republicans haven't felt it necessary, or felt themselves able, to make any such offer. Mitt Romney famously disdained the idea of offering voters "gifts" the way President Barack Obama did. But if they think about politics that way, Republicans are setting themselves up for defeat. It means that voters are left with a choice between government subsidies from Democrats and nothing concrete from Republicans. The alternative is to find conservative policies that can make people better off, and make the argument for them. Hayward points out that Reagan rarely asked the public to support him because of how conservative he was; he asked them to support him because his conservative ideas were so attractive.

Third, the Republican offer should respond to the actual challenges facing the country today. Reagan didn't run on a Barry Goldwater-style platform of making Social Security voluntary and getting rid of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He offered conservative responses to pressing issues -- tax cuts to restore growth, monetary restraint to control inflation, a defense build-up to cow the Soviets, price liberalization to end gas lines, and so forth -- while putting many other conservative wishes on the back burner.

If Republicans update their ideas to offer conservative responses to the challenges today's Americans face, they will be doing something better than invoking Reagan's name. They'll be following his example.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Ramesh
Ponnuru

What's new on AEI

Defeating ISIS: AEI experts weigh-in before the president’s address on Wednesday
image Degrading, defeating, and destroying the Islamic State
image Wealth Building Home Loan: Building wealth through homeownership and retirement savings
image The $3 iPhone
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 15
    MON
  • 16
    TUE
  • 17
    WED
  • 18
    THU
  • 19
    FRI
Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.