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Reagan Record

Where Have You Gone, Ronald Reagan?

by Patrick J. Buchanan

March 20, 1997

Not since the halcyon days of Calvin Coolidge has the GOP held both Houses of Congress in a successive election, as it did in'96. Yet, to borrow again Bill Clinton's phrase, the party is in a "world of hurt." The House of Reagan is today a house divided against itself.

Why is the GOP demoralized? For several reasons. Twice in a row, it has lost presidential elections with 37 percent and 41 percent of the popular vote. Not since Herbert Hoover and Alf Landon have party nominees lost like that. Moreover, unlike the Barry Goldwater defeat of 1964, the losses of'92 and '96 were not the defeat of a rising rebellion whose time had not yet come. Equally demoralizing, the triumphal Republican Revolution of 1994 was followed by a rout of Congress in the great budget battle of'95, when Clinton blamed the government shutdown on Republican "extremists." And the country agreed with Bill Clinton.

Like Lincoln's army before Gen. Grant came east, the GOP has brave soldiers but timid generals, fearful of hostile terrain and of a foe who has outmaneuvered them again and again. They have lost confidence in their ability to win battles; hence, they have lost the will to fight. Party strategy seems to be to await the inevitable downtown in the economy and to ride that and the Clinton scandals back to control of Congress in 1998 and into the White House in 2000. It might work, except the ranks will not sit still for four years waiting for the pendulum to slowly swing back. As was evident at the annual conservatives' CPAC conclave this month, there is mutiny among the oarsmen, openly derisive of captains who will not command. With dispiriting news coming weekly off the Hill, there is already mumbling about who will be the new generals. First, Congress tanked on term limits.

Then, to get well with the cultural elites, the party backed down on defunding the National Endowment for the Arts. Now, one reads that Newt has tossed in the towel on a tax cut to avoid another confrontation with his nemesis. All of which raises this question: What does the Republican majority stand for -- other than to remain the Republican majority? Behind this paralysis and malaise lies a deeper root. The party has yet to come to terms with the painful reality that the Reagan era is over and gone. The great Reagan coalition cannot be put together again on the old issues. The evil empire is dead. Yet the GOP establishment continues to hearken to the advice of a foreign policy elite whose ideas are grounded in the certitudes of a dead era and who should long ago have packed up their Medals of Freedom and repaired to their respective cottages at Leisure World and Sun City.

This Cold War crowd bristles at an amputated Russia, while cooing at a rising China with eight times Russia's population. It is China, not Russia, that looms as our Great Power antagonist in the coming century. Moreover, the corporate interests and social convictions of a transnational business elite -- which pays the party's room, board and tuition, and covers vacations as well -- are in conflict with the moral beliefs and rising economic nationalism of Middle America. The fissure between boardroom and bowling alley, country club and Christian church, is deeper than ever. The party's paralysis stems from a refusal to choose between them and an unwillingness to take up the agenda of one and thereby antagonize the other. Never has the disconnect between the Beltway and Route 66 been greater. A new conservative, traditionalist, populist coalition waits to be born.

But it cannot be brought together by Republicans who agree with Clinton on NAFTA, GATT, the Mexican bailout, Bosnia, NATO expansion, foreign aid and term limits and who refuse to fight on affirmative action, cultural traditions, campaign reform, immigration, corralling the judges and right to life. Odd, is it not? On issues such as school prayer, ending foreign aid, restricting immigration, repealing racial quotas and imposing term limits, 80 percent of the country agrees with Republican platforms. Yet Congress cannot find an agenda on which to stand, fight and win.

For a party full of fight, a hundred battlefields beckon. But for a leadership that feels the pain of '95 and '96, that does not wish to alienate the Big Media, that wants to "get well," that fears another beating at Clinton's hands, there is no good place to engage. If the leadership does not pull itself together soon and lay out a battle plan to rally its discontented, disaffected troops, it is going to face a nasty insurgency in its own ranks. Vacuums never remain unfilled, and vacuous leadership is soon replaced.