"You cannot emulate any time in American history. You cannot try to premise your actions on Reagan. ‘He did this, so he'd do this.’ It's the fundamental principles that Reagan brought to the table that are applicable to our globalized generation and the challenges we face." -- House Republican Policy Committee Chairman, Thaddeus McCotter
Ronald Reagan was the greatest American President of the last 100 years, the second most important man of the 20th century behind Churchill, and one of the outstanding Presidents and world leaders of the modern era.
Reagan rebuilt our military, got our economy thriving again, re-energized the Republican Party, popularized conservative principles, was the one man most responsible for winning the Cold War, and conservatives always knew that he was one of us right down to his core.
That is why there was such an outpouring of grief when the Gipper died and why Ronald Reagan's name is still revered amongst conservatives -- and rightfully so.
That being said, many people in the conservative movement, because of our reverence for Reagan, have fallen into a trap, one that Reagan himself would have cautioned us to avoid.
That trap is coalescing around Reagan's agenda instead of Reagan's principles. That may seem to be a subtle point; however, it is a rather important distinction.
Principles are timeless. The free market almost always does a better job of handling things than big government. People are better able to spend their own money than the government is. As government power increases, the people's liberty retracts.
On the other hand, agendas can and often do change. We no longer need to try to defeat the Soviet Union. Restoring America's confidence in our military after the debacle in Vietnam isn't important any more. Defeating stagflation isn't exactly a hot topic either.
Reagan understood this instinctively. There were conservatives back in the thirties, but Reagan didn't run an election based on their issues. He had great respect for Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement, but he didn't adopt Goldwater's agenda wholesale and if he had, he would have never become President of the United States.
That brings us to the dual problem we face with today's Republican Party.
The levers of power in today's GOP are in too many cases controlled by the same sort of wishy-washy Rockefeller Republicans who ran things before Reagan dragged the party to the Right. The party machinery goes all out to help squishes while often ignoring the needs of conservatives. It has also set up a primary system that makes it extremely difficult for conservatives to become the party’s presidential nominee -- and too often champions or at least turns a blind eye to issues like profligate spending and amnesty for illegal aliens that absolutely appall the conservatives who make up the heart of the Republican Party.
On the other side of the coin, because conservatives have become so disheartened by the performance of the Republican Party, we've become overly critical, de-motivated, and often reflexively demand a return to much of the agenda of the Reagan era.
This is problematic because, as a congressional aide I spoke with recently bemoaned,
"(N)one of the ideas we propose make...(conservatives) happy. If we invoke Reagan people say - RECYCLED IDEAS. If we move away from Reagan -- they say "where is Reagan?" It's like a no win situation."
There's a simple solution to this dilemma that is decimating the Republican Party and dragging the conservative movement down with it: that is applying Reagan's principles to the issues that the American people care about.
Some of the issues we need to deal with today are the same as they were when Reagan was in office. For example, big government and uninhibited government spending are no more of a boon to the country today than they were during the eighties. However, other issues just weren't as important 20 years ago as they are today. For example, health care and gay marriage weren't bringing people to the polls like they do in today's political environment. Then there are the other issues, like the income tax rate, crime, and welfare that are still issues, but don't have the "oomph" that they did back then.
If we can't get conservative Republicans into office, we can't implement our ideas and unfortunately, running on the remaining salient issues from Reagan's time in office isn't going to cut it, nor is alienating conservatives by moving the GOP to the middle of the road.
Instead, what we have to do is apply Reagan's principles to today's problems so that the GOP can bring conservatives back on board while simultaneously showing middle-of-the-road Americans that we do have real solutions to the problems that they're concerned about.
So, are we willing to secure the border and crack down on employers that knowingly hire illegals, which will cause most of the illegals that are here to self-deport? Are we willing to fight to give individual Americans, instead of businesses, health care tax breaks so that we can cover more Americans, at the same cost, and unleash the power of the market in health care? Are we willing to cut foreign aid and remove bases from nations we needed for the Cold War, but that are useless in the war on terror?
Those issues, and others that the GOP needs to get back in power are out there, just waiting for the Party to get behind them. America is a still a center-right country and conservatives, unhappy though they may be at the moment, are ready to open their wallets, put up signs, vote, and do what they have to do for their country if they're given a reason to do so. Having a Republican Party that's guided not by eighties nostalgia or unprincipled poll-driven politics, but Reagan's principles, would give them that reason.