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Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
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.
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