The GOP has turned its back on Reagan and Lincoln

Republican heroes of yesteryear would be personas non grata in today's increasingly radical party

Paul Brandus

To borrow the name of one of the better movies of the '90s, the Republican Party needs a few good men (and women) who can tell the truth about today's GOP. But for many rank-and-file Republicans, engaging with reality may be very difficult. As the tough-as-nails Marine colonel (played to perfection by Jack Nicholson) bellowed: "You can't handle the truth!"

Indeed, the Republican Party is now so badly out of touch with the majority of voters, and so far to the right with most of its policies, that it can no longer be considered the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and the first George Bush. In some respects, it has even moved beyond George W. In doing so, it has shunned its rich past and dismissed the legacies of its greatest heroes. All of those Republican presidents did things, reasonable things, that would render them toxic and unelectable with today's unreasonable, untethered-from-reality brand of Republicans.

Here's some truth: In November, Republicans lost women by 11 points, voters between 18 and 29 by 23 points, and voters between 30 and 44 by 7 points. Who did the GOP win? Those closest to death. They won the 45 to 64 group by 4 points and those 65 and older by 12.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

In an age in which education is more important for securing decent employment than ever before, Republicans generally did best among voters with the least education, and poorest among those with the most. They won conservative voters by an overwhelming margin, but that's only one-third of the electorate. They lost the other two-thirds — moderates and liberals — by wide margins. They cruised among people who go to church at least once a week, but that group is just two-fifths of the electorate; it wasn't close among the other three-fifths. They lost the youngest, and fastest-growing, voter bloc — Latinos — by 44 points, even worse than the 36-point embarrassment of 2008.

Demographics are moving against Republicans, and conservatives are going to have to change their tune if they want to better identify with the citizenry of tomorrow.

Republicans: Pick up a history book. Study the centrist, level-headed, cooperative inclusiveness of past GOP presidents. If you can handle the truth, here are some of the things they did that endeared them to voters:

* Ronald Reagan supported an assault weapons ban, the Brady Bill on background checks and, in 1986, signed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which was hailed by gun rights activists for its numerous protections for gun owners. But it also banned ownership of any fully automatic rifles that weren't already registered on the day the law was signed.

* Reagan was the first cap-and-trade president, using the concept to attack unleaded gasoline and pollutants that cause acid rain.

* Reagan's 1986 Tax Reform Act cut taxes for individuals (by shifting the burden to businesses) to the tune, in 2012 dollars, of $750 billion. He also signed off on higher gasoline taxes and jacked up taxes on investment income. What a socialist!

* Richard Nixon, one of Reagan's mentors, signed off on the 1969 Tax Reform Act, which cut taxes for the vast majority of Americans, but also created the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax, designed to make sure that rich folks pay, as Barack Obama says, their fair share.

* Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which has worked for 40 years to — egads! — make sure the water you drink and air you breathe are clean.

* Dwight Eisenhower supported big government spending on infrastructure programs, notably the interstate highway system.

* The former five-star general, who led the D-Day invasion of France, also warned in his last speech to the nation in 1961 that military spending was too big and threatened the health of the U.S. economy.

* Abraham Lincoln asked Congress for the first-ever income tax in 1861 — a 3 percent tax on income — to help finance the Civil War. Lincoln believed that Americans should pay for their wars as they fought them. What a concept.

None of these ideas would pass muster in today's Republican Party. Today's GOP, inexplicably, has turned its back on these heroes, denied its own history, buried its collective head in the sand. This isn't your grandfather's Republican Party. It's not even your father's Republican Party. It's something else entirely, and should have a new name: perhaps the "Know-Nothing Party" of the 1850s fits the bill. The Know-Nothing Party was formed to oppose immigration and to guard against what was perceived in the day as a threat to the economic and political security of white-Protestant America. Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, next to no one in the Republican Party (or whatever it should be called today) is speaking these truths. Bobby Jindal, the Oxford-educated Louisiana governor, dipped a toe in the water last week when he said the GOP "must stop being the stupid party." He added: "The Republican Party does not need to change our principles — but we might need to change just about everything else we do."

Finally, some truth. But in a broader sense Jindal's criticism was muted: "I am not one of those who believe we should moderate, equivocate, or otherwise abandon our principles," he said. Jindal's comments can be seen as trying to nudge, as opposed to shove, a chastened party toward the center, where elections are won.

But can Republicans accept even this mild rebuke from one of their own? Many seem to live in an alternative universe, consuming content from only a handful of media outlets that tell them only what they want to hear. This meets the classic definition of bias, yet it's everything else that's slanted in their world view. Facts don't matter. Data and science? Irrelevant.

It is this detachment from reality that is killing the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan. If the GOP is to survive, its leaders must not only handle the truth — but act on it.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.