After Reagan: Five Challenges for 21st Century Conservatives

Steven Hayward

November 1, 2009

American conservatives today find themselves in a position analogous to the place liberals found themselves at the time Richard Hofstadter offered his assessment that the passing of Franklin Roosevelt “left American liberalism demoralized and all but helpless.” Today the frustration and demoralization of conservatives can be found in the intramural argument that has broken out over how to regard the legacy of the anti-FDR, Ronald Reagan.

Our friends in the Heritage Foundation and elsewhere actively point to Reagan as the model of modern conservative statecraft, suggesting we should orient ourselves each day with the simple heuristic, “What Would Reagan Do?” (WWRD for short.) Other conservative leaders, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and current Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, have suggested in varying degrees that the time has come for us to “get over” or “move beyond” Reagan. Circumstances are different today, and nostalgia, no matter how much it warms our weary souls, is no substitute for a program that meets the problems of the here and now.

As the author of probably more than 2,000 pages of Reagan material in three books and countless shorter articles, you’d expect me to side foursquare with the WWRD folks and against the “move on” crowd. But in fact I think both sides are correct: Reagan should be studied closely and emulated for his lessons in successful statecraft—lessons which are adaptable if people pay attention. The “move on” crowd are also correct that repeating superficial Reagan slogans (Optimism about America! Peace through strength!) and replaying his ideas (cut taxes again!) does not match up well with the challenges of the moment, though one suspects that part of the “move on” crowd’s motivation is that they are frustrated at being compared to the Gipper and wish they weren’t held to such a high standard of proficiency.

I suspect if Reagan were surveying the scene today he’d draw us back to the wellsprings of his own shrewd and creative approach to the problems of his time, for his fundamental beliefs also bear on current problems. In fact, if you look closely, you can see how Reagan anticipated some of our current circumstances and tried to point the way out. Today there are at least five major intellectual tasks facing conservatives. Some of these tasks have remained unfinished since the Reagan era, and some of them are the ironic product of the Reagan era’s successes. Here is what conservatives must do:

1. Develop a robust popular language of constitutionalism. While conservative intellectuals have done superb work diagnosing the way in which liberalism has hollowed out the Constitution for more than a century, this work has not found a vernacular expression suitable for effecting a proper restoration. Constitutional “originalism,” though essential, remains too abstract and remote for most citizens. Reagan never quite solved this problem, but he did better than most conservatives before or since. More so than any other modern conservative, Reagan recognized that the problem of big government was constitutional in nature, and his rhetoric emphasized this fact to a degree that has been overlooked by both his would-be admirers and his critics. Recall that in his First Inaugural Address, Reagan said “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed” (emphasis added). Note here that Reagan didn’t rest his argument against the growth of government in the ground of efficiency or effectiveness, but on the constitutional ground of consent. In a private letter in 1979, Reagan wrote: “The permanent structure of our government with its power to pass regulations has eroded if not in effect repealed portions of our Constitution.” Despite his resolve to reduce the size and scope of the federal government, after eight years Reagan left office with the government larger in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation and population growth) than when he took office. While his efforts to reform government were admirable and achieved many important successes, in the end he failed in his larger objective of constraining the federal government for the long run. In the conclusion to my second Age of Reagan book, I summarize the problem this way: “Reagan was more successful rolling back the Soviet empire than he was in rolling back the domestic government empire chiefly because this is a harder problem.”

Reagan understood that the conventional efforts to restrain government through the annual budget process and executive branch exertion were insufficient to achieve his goal, so starting in 1987 Reagan began advocating for formal constitutional reform with a comprehensive package he called the “Economic Bill of Rights.” In addition to the balanced budget and line-item veto amendments he had always advocated, Reagan proposed three additional amendments that would impose a federal spending limit, require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate for any tax increases, and prohibit wage and price controls.

These amendments never had a chance of passage during Reagan’s presidency (the only related proposal that ever came close was the balanced budget amendment, which passed the Senate but failed in the House), and might not necessarily be good ideas to write into our fundamental charter—there are good arguments on both sides of each proposal. But as a thought experiment one can imagine how a constitutional spending limit, a supermajority requirement for tax increases, or a ban on wage and price controls would constrain Obama’s agenda today. (With wage controls currently imposed on the financial sector, and price controls contemplated for the health care sector, how long before a burst of inflation inspires the Obamanauts to extend the idea across the whole economy again?) Above all, advocating this agenda would have the effect of making liberals defend the unlimited and profligate government we have now. It’s not a comprehensive answer, but it’s a place to start.

2. Give up the conservative culture of victimhood. Conservatives rightly criticize liberalism for its victimhood mentality—for seeing every unfortunate social outcome as the product of systemically unfair capitalism, racism, sexism, and so forth. Yet conservatives sometimes lapse into a similar frame of mind when complaining about liberal media bias, campus conformity, and Hollywood decadence. Although criticisms of media bias need to be made, the hypocrisy of academic “diversity” exposed, and Hollywood shamed (though they did a good job of shaming themselves with their defense of Roman Polanski), conservatives lapse into the very thing we are attacking when we claim that the media and academia are unfair. Of course they are unfair, but the unfairness of life is a central tenet of conservatism, isn’t it? Reagan seldom whined publicly about media bias (he complained bitterly in private); he smiled and went on the attack. He made fun of the professorial class. He twitted Hollywood for its eroding morals.

Oddly enough, conservatives should embody the essence of the feminist cliché that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be considered equal. In most cases we are better than liberals and whip them in a fair debate. I never consider myself outnumbered on a campus panel unless the ratio is at least four to one against me. Besides, today there is less excuse for complaint. The liberal mainstream media (MSM) is losing its audience, students increasingly disdain postmodernist poseurs, and family-friendly movies do the biggest box office. And if you don’t like the MSM, the democratization of mass media in the internet age means we can compete head to head with the New York Times or the networks for impact. Just ask ACORN, brought low, as Jon Stewart put it, by the cast of High School Musical III on a budget of $3,000. I suspect the next flanking movement by conservatives will be alternatives to higher education that offer students material of importance as well as useful degrees. (See Charles Murray’s latest book, Real Education, for a blueprint of this prospect.)

3. Attack the irresponsible rich. What? This requires some brief background. Basically, the political order of the US has been turned on its head. For the last several election cycles, starting back in the Clinton era, the wealthiest individuals in America started voting Democratic. Obama handily won the growing number of households with income above $250,000 a year—the very group whose taxes Obama promised to raise. This represents a bitter irony: it was Reagan’s tax cuts and opening up of financial markets to innovation that enabled so many people to become rich and move left. Well, since rich people voted for the candidate who says he’ll raise their taxes, perhaps we should give them what they want good and hard. I’m not actually in favor of restoring pre-Reagan high marginal tax rates, which are economically counter-productive. But how about old fashioned sumptuary laws?

There is one aspect of the super-affluent today that conservatives might bore in on with some potentially edifying results, and that is the increasing remoteness of the super rich from the mainstream of American life. Consider Sergey Brin, one of the billionaire co-founders of Google. Brin is a politically correct liberal, supporting leftist causes such as abating global warming even though Google is a prodigious energy user that locates its massive server farms near coal-fired power plants for their cheap electricity. More to the point, Brin’s private plane, a Boeing 767, features an on-board hot tub. The super rich now have exclusive private islands to go along with their private bankers. This opulence might not be politically objectionable, except that more and more of the super rich are turning into George Soros, with a smarter-than-thou attitude that manifests itself in authoritarian sympathies, actively helping to undermine the very system that enabled them to generate their great wealth.

It sends me running back to John Adams, who suggested using an old-fashioned kind of regulation in a new way—not to enforce class distinctions but rather to erode them. He wrote in 1776: “The very mention of sumptuary laws will excite a smile. Whether our countrymen have wisdom and virtue enough to submit to them, I know not; but the happiness of the people might be greatly promoted by them, and a revenue saved sufficient to carry on this war forever. Frugality is a great revenue, besides curing us of vanities, levities, and fopperies, which are real antidotes to all great, manly, and warlike virtues.”

The other thing conservatives can do is attack big business. Some of this is happening. I was recently a witness at a hearing of the House Committee on Trade and Consumer Protection where the Republican members blistered the representative of General Electric for its self-serving advocacy of “green technology” subsidies while importing most of their raw materials and outsourcing their manufacturing of compact florescent light bulbs to China. It’s nice to see the GOP attacking corporate socialists. Reagan used to say, when told a business faction favored federal regulation, “Well—serves them right then.”

4. End welfare-state/Cold-War style warfare. This is not the place to try to sort out whether we should or shouldn’t stay in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are intelligent divisions among conservatives—among the fraternity of Ashbrook Center scholars and adjuncts even—over the best strategy for engaging Islamic terrorism. But even if you decide we should be engaged in nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is increasingly clear: we can’t afford to do it the way we are doing it now—not at a time of trillion dollar budget deficits. By the time we finally draw down in Iraq, we may have spent close to $1 trillion. Stabilizing Afghanistan is now slated to cost in the hundreds of billions. This can’t go on, especially if Pakistan slips under the waves, or Iran acts up in a serious way.

Essentially we are conducting the effort against militant Islam according to the Cold War model, which required a large standing army and an expensive bureaucratic institutional infrastructure to confront a massive and malignant nation-state in the form of the Soviet Union and its allies. While there are loathsome regimes at the heart of the problem of Islamic radicalism (some of them nominally our allies), this is not the same circumstance. Our fine military will do what we ask of it, but we risk degrading its capabilities and demoralizing our soldiers with open-ended commitments that involve too much social work. The State Department and the Agency for International Development, meanwhile, positively love nation-building, even though every indication is that they are as inept at it as the Department of Health and Human Services and HUD and FEMA are at rebuilding New Orleans (let alone fighting poverty here at home). A challenge for conservative policy wonks is to think through a radically different model that can promote decent regimes and fight the bad guys at a much lower cost. One suggestion: talk to India as an equal partner in forming grand strategy, though they have sterner ideas than our State Department. Again, Reagan points the way: when it became clear that America couldn’t sort out Lebanon in 1983 short of a massive American commitment, he cut his losses, got out, and let the Israelis take the lead in containing the bad guys there. That decision is susceptible to many criticisms, but it was not self-evidently wrong.

5. End the left’s monopoly on green policy. Quick: who said this: “[There is an] absolute necessity of waging all-out war against the debauching of the environment.… The bulldozer mentality of the past is a luxury we can no longer afford. Our roads and other public projects must be planned to prevent the destruction of scenic resources and to avoid needlessly upsetting the ecological balance.” Sounds like Al Gore, Barbra Streisand, or Ralph Nader, doesn’t it? In fact, these words came from Governor Ronald Reagan, at the time he was signing into law one of the most aggressive environmental protection statutes ever passed up to that point. The fact that no self-respecting Reaganite would talk this way today is a reflection of how deeply polarized environmental issues have become, chiefly because the left has monopolized and corrupted the issue so thoroughly.

There are good reasons for conservative antipathy toward environmentalism as we experience it today, chiefly in the over-the-top and always erroneous apocalypticism of the greens and the costly, litigious and relentlessly bureaucratic rule that environmental policy has entailed. (I like to say that the problem with the EPA is that it devises billion dollar solutions to million dollar problems.) But too many conservatives commit the non-sequitur of supposing that because environmentalists say something is a problem, it must be phony, at which point conservatives disdain thinking about how to solve real though perhaps overestimated problems with a non-bureaucratic or non-centralized policy. In politics this problem avoidance is seen in the defensiveness, confusion, and at times near terror with which Republicans regard environmental issues.

Environmental issues are fast losing their saliency with the American public according to the polls, which paradoxically makes it the ideal time to take the issue back from the left. Here’s one practical idea: become champions of energy breakthroughs that will put the OPEC cartel out of business. But rather than offering government subsidies and ladling out huge research grants, offer large prizes for specific breakthroughs (for meeting a hydrogen performance standard, for example, or a biofuels performance standard). It’s an idea with many precedents, going back to the British quest for an accurate oceangoing clock in the 17th century. We did it with airplanes back around 1910, and with refrigerators in the 1980s and 1990s. (The environmental group Resources for the Future has done the best analytical work on this idea.)

There are other challenges large and small about which conservatives should think anew, from health care and the dimensions of the welfare state in general, to the vexing problem of uncontrolled illegal immigration and the nature of American citizenship today. But these five are a start. Above all, the party that uses the elephant as its symbol will have to come to grips with the metaphorical elephant in the room—the presidency of George W. Bush. President Bush’s legacy should be at least as large a problem for conservatives as Woodrow Wilson is or ought to be for liberals. If it is true that the last successful example of conservative governance is Ronald Reagan, then it is not too soon to move on and discard the Bush legacy. Reagan got to where he did, and governed as he did, by bringing fresh thinking and working hard to change the minds of a majority of Americans. And that example is timeless.

Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute, an adjunct scholar of the Ashbrook Center,
and the author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative
Counter-Revolution, 1980-1989.