It seems like everyone wants to be like Ronald Reagan these days -- at least those with presidential aspirations. Gov. Mitt Romney says he's a Reagan Republican, and so does John McCain -- amazingly. Some Democrats even identify with the Gipper.
Indeed, mainstream conservatives, present company included, believe Republicans should revert to Reagan conservatism. But this will be easier said than done given the different set of problems facing the nation today, the sharp disagreements among those who each claim to represent Reagan conservatism and the lack of a clear leader of the conservative movement.
President Bush has been quite conservative on certain highly important issues such as taxes and foreign policy. But he has never even purported to be a movement guy and has sometimes dissociated himself from mainstream conservatism, as with his insistence that he's a "compassionate conservative."
Apparently his idea of "compassionate conservatism" is that the government should stay big and intrusive in the domestic spending department, but it should spend the money in ways presumably more palatable to conservatives, such as on the faith-based initiative or by demanding standards in education.
But the point here is neither to rehash the merits of "compassionate conservatism" nor to criticize (or praise) President Bush for having promoted it. Rather, it is to demonstrate that the very idea of conservatism under President Bush's tenure has been muddled. If the movement is to be reunited and reignited, a leader or group of leaders must emerge both to redefine the message and rally the grass roots.
President Bush could give that effort a significant boost if he were to promote a truly conservative agenda the next two years on those domestic issues to which he has pledged his solemn vow of conservatism.
Granted, no matter what happens on domestic issues, the myriad problems concerning the war on terror, including and especially Iraq, will remain and have to be addressed. But the war is no excuse to succumb to lame-duck inertia on vital domestic issues.
On the domestic side President Bush could aggressively push to make the income tax cuts permanent, finally eliminate or drastically reduce the estate tax and aggressively pursue entitlement and health care reform by seeking to increase privatization, consumer choice and market forces in both. We could bank on the Democratic congressional majority's fierce opposition. The stage would be set for a showdown between the president (and the congressional minority) and the congressional majority.