Memo to: Republican candidates of all stripes
From: A well-wisher
Subject: How to Win Again
As Republican primary and caucus voters conspire to deny the party a front-runner -- one state for you, another for you, and a third for the other guy -- some observers have speculated that the party doesn't quite know its own identity. Among party regulars, the lament has gone up to Heaven, "Why can't anyone simply propound a Reaganite agenda and unite us?"
A fascinating new book, "Comeback," by former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, offers what may seem to some a startling answer: Drop Reagan. He is no longer relevant to the challenges we face as a party or a nation. He was perfect for his time. But that time has passed.
When Ronald Reagan ran in 1980, the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent. Inflation was eroding the purchasing power of consumers. Overregulation strangled businesses. One out of every three households had been victimized by crime within the previous 12 months. The Soviet Union had added 12 new countries to the communist domain in the previous decade. American hostages in Tehran were paraded on international television. Welfare rolls were expanding.
Reagan's reform package spoke to those issues. He favored tax cuts, deregulation, welfare reform, stricter law enforcement, tight money and a strong national defense.
So are conservatives victims of their own success? To a point, yes. Two decades of steady reductions have made the tax code so steeply progressive that most Americans pay very little income tax (the payroll tax is another matter), and 29 million income earners no longer pay any income tax at all. The top 1 percent of taxpayers now pays more than one-third of total taxes. Alas, Frum writes, "The top 1 percent may make a disproportionate amount of money. But they still cast only 1 percent of the votes." Is it therefore surprising that poll after poll find Americans less interested in tax-cutting and more concerned about deficit reduction?
The story is similar regarding the other issues that made Reaganism so compelling. Inflation was painfully wrung from the economy in '82 and '83. The Soviet Union was brought low. Crime has dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s. Bipartisan efforts have reduced regulation. Welfare reform was finally accomplished in 1996.
But it wasn't just the triumph of conservative solutions that left the Republican Party without a unifying theme; it was also the conduct of Republicans in power. Complacency, corruption and lack of imagination have combined to undermine the Republican brand.