25 Years After Reagan: Where Does the GOP Stand?

“Both major parties have been around so long that they exude the seedy, unmistakable odor of entrenched and callous old age. But in the eye (or nose) of public opinion … the GOP unquestionably forged into a commanding lead in this unhappy respect.”

Sounds familiar, right? Except this observation of the Republican Party was penned in 1975 by National Review editor and revolutionary thinker William Rusher in his critically acclaimed book, “The Making of the New Majority Party.” In the wake of Watergate and the unprecedented resignations of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew and after Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, continued the pursuit of his predecessor’s liberal policies, the GOP had hit rock bottom by the time of the fall elections of 1974.

The GOP lost countless House and Senate seats and hundreds of state legislative races. In fact, the situation was so bad, the Democratic Party by January of 1975 had near or total control of 49 state governments. Only in Kansas did the GOP hold sway. With no money coming in, the Republican National Committee fired dozens of staffers and closed its headquarters in December of 1974 for three weeks, just to save on the electricity bill. The GOP was bankrupt in every sense of the word.

The Republican Party had lost its way and many, including Rusher, thought it would go the way of the Whigs, the GOP’s political forefathers, because the Republicans, like the Whigs, had come to stand for nothing. The lessons of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — to challenge the status quo and never accept things as they are — were lost on the party. Rusher, like many leading lights of the Conservative movement, thought that what was best was for the Republican Party to be replaced by a new, third political party, one that would draw in conservatives from both the Democratic Party and the GOP. Their idea made a great deal of sense, especially considering the fact that there were many right of center Democrats in those days and there was still the hangover of Reconstruction in the South, thus the phrase, “Yellow Dog Democrat,” meaning Southerners would rather vote for a yellow dog than a hated Republican.

Consequently, according to Rusher and others, there would evolve two parties of competing and not overlapping philosophies — one party, the conservatives, would be suspicious of government and the other, the Democrats, would be the party of government. An honest choice for the American voter would be one happy byproduct.

The natural leader of the new party, everybody thought, was the wildly popular former governor of California, Ronald Reagan. Indeed, he did briefly flirt with the notion but later decided that he’d already left one political party and he wasn’t about to leave another. He was going to run for President and change the GOP at the same time.

The GOP, at the leadership level from the time of William Howard Taft up until Ford’s presidency, was a Tory-like party in which power flowed downward and the status quo was always defended. As an example, witness the aggressive posture of the Nixon White House when the Pentagon Papers were leaked to the media. The papers were all about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations conduct of the Vietnam War — nothing about Nixon. Still, his staff went to battle stations to attack the media over the printing of the classified documents simply because the establishment was threatened.

As we celebrate the 25 anniversary of the revolutionary election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, it’s evident the GOP has come along way at this silver anniversary. The party he inherited was adrift and badly in need of a vigorous message and courageous leadership. And Reagan’s sunny optimism, was not just about being a nice guy, it reflected his outlook for the future of America. It was a crucial part of his ideology.

Reagan, from 1975 to 1980, completed the process begun years earlier by Barry Goldwater by turning the GOP into an American brand of populist conservatism in which power flows upwards and the status quo is always questioned.

After the Gipper passed away in June of 2004, old Reagan hand Jeff Bell wrote in The Weekly Standard: “Reagan invariably gravitated toward the aspects of American conservatism that were optimistic not cynical, populist not elitist, egalitarian, not hierarchical, moral not relativistic — in short, what is distinctly American in American conservatism.”

Unfortunately, the winning formulas of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan are becoming lost on the GOP of today. The beginning of the downfall of the Democrats began in 1965, when, at their apogee, they became the party of big government, tax cuts and corruption. Only Vietnam and Watergate staved off their eventual demise.

At the close of 2005, the GOP has become the party of big government, tax cuts and corruption. It is evolving back into a Tory party.

To wit, Reagan never would have called the Minutemen “vigilantes” as some in the GOP did after these citizens, angry at our porous borders, took it upon themselves to organize a volunteer patrol of the Mexican border. To Reagan, what these concerned Americans were doing was representative of individual initiative, much like a volunteer firefighter. Only those statists Republicans who called them vigilantes would presumably denounce a citizen’s arrest as well.

Meanwhile, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee recently ran ads attacking the conservative mayor of Cranston, R.I., because he has the temerity to consider a primary challenge to incumbent liberal Senator Lincoln Chaffee. Their actions may be unprecedented. The first rule of the bureaucracy — any bureaucracy — is to protect itself, and everybody understands that the party committees give money and support to incumbents. This is one thing. But it is quite another thing when those same committees engage in ad homonym attacks on a member of their own party.

In Virginia, the Democratic candidate for governor, Tim Kaine, supported local control by homeowners against unrestricted growth. The Republican candidate, Jerry Kilgore, in Mr. Jefferson’s own backyard, opposed such local control, siding with the big developers. And some in the GOP are arguing for national identification cards. In the GOP, power is once again flowing downward.

Witness also, the unconscionable growth of government, all at the hands of total Republican control of the federal government and most is not attributed to national defense or the war on terror. Indeed, another GOP party committee, the National Republican Congressional Committee, recently distributed a memo to congressmen urging they brag about the pork brought home to their districts. Only the grotesque amounts that were discussed for hurricane relief finally awakened the grassroots of the conservative movement, and not a minute too soon, to rise up in righteous indignation, demanding cuts in spending. Far be it from some conservatives to praise John McCain, but praise him they must for urging large cuts in the federal budget.

And where the Democrats had infamous symbols of greed and corruption in the form of Billy Sol Estes and Bobby Baker in the 1960s, the GOP can point to its own access sellers, lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Office of Management and Budget director David Safavian among others. The right of the citizenry to petition their government is an important part of the First Amendment and no real conservative would argue anything else. But the excesses of money and greed have led some in the party to abandon their core beliefs. Or worse, attempt to remake conservativism into something it is not.

The natural state of the modern conservative movement is to always be in a state of constant revolution — so when they are called “elitists” it rankles because it is baseless. After all, we supported a guy who went to Eureka College for President.

When George Bush acts in a revolutionary manner, as in the case of tax cuts, or the war on terror or nominating John Bolton to the United Nations, or reforming Social Security, he is applauded by his base and his poll numbers were quite good in these instances, especially with the conservatives who dominate the party.

So when Bush chose Harriet Miers, it cut deeply with his biggest supporters because they know he is “one of us” — and that he is deeply distrustful of the real elites who dominate Washington and much of American culture.

Bush is not alone in facing a revolt among his own people. Reagan sometimes acted in a pragmatic fashion too, and conservatives let him know of their displeasure. In this, though, Bush can take some solace. Conservatives angst is not personal. They desperately want Bush, the conservative, to succeed.

In many ways, the GOP has become a victim of its own successes, attracting new people who are interested in the party, not for reasons of ideology, but for reasons of money, access, power and fame. These statists are ironically taking the party back into the past — exactly where Reagan never wanted it to go. Reagan’s banner of “bold unmistakable colors” is being struck and the party is running up a white bed sheet of surrender.

These insiders, few of which have ever read “Free to Choose” or “Conscience of a Conservative” are taking Reagan’s revolutionary party of the future, created within the framework of freedom, down the road to minority status once again.

For years, the mantra of the Democratic Party has been, “give us power so we can do good things for you,” an emotional appeal. The Republicans rejoined was, “give us power, so we can give you more freedom,” requiring an intellectual discipline. Clearly, this message of Reagan’s is becoming too difficult for some in today’s Republican Party.