Feature

The GOP: Too extreme for Reagan?

Jeb Bush caused a stir by saying that neither Ronald Reagan nor his father would have been nominated as president by today's GOP.

Jeb Bush is “on a quest to push his party away from the political extreme,” said Aaron Blake in The Washington Post. The former Florida governor, who is son and brother to the 41st and 43rd presidents, respectively, caused a stir last week by saying that today’s GOP has moved so far to the right that neither Ronald Reagan nor his father could be nominated as president. Both Reagan and Bush Sr., he said, were able to solve the nation’s problems by compromising and “finding some degree of common ground” with Democrats in Congress. But today’s Republican Party, he said, has an “orthodoxy” that prevents any political deals on budgets, taxes, or any other issue. Bush was promptly attacked for his apostasy by champions of conservative orthodoxy, such as anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, said former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett in The Fiscal Times. Norquist called Bush’s comments “foolish” and “bizarre.” But Jeb is right about Reagan. After he passed a major tax cut and the federal budget deficit ballooned, Reagan “supported tax increases and signed 11 of them into law.” Reagan also granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants. If Reagan were seeking the Republican nomination today, that record would get him “expelled for treason.”

That’s “revisionist history,” said Jon Healey in the Los Angeles Times. Reagan was no eager-to-please moderate, but a fiercely partisan conservative whose “political mission was to push the GOP to the right.” He ultimately succeeded in that mission, but in the 1980s, he had to compromise with liberals on taxes, spending, and other issues in order to govern. Today, with conservatives firmly established, he’d undoubtedly run as “the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.” Besides, the evidence contradicts the claim that the GOP has become “too rigid and ideological for even the Gipper,” said Jonah Goldberg, also in the Los Angeles Times. Look at the “crazy right-wingers” we’ve nominated for president recently—the centrist maverick McCain in 2008 and, now, the “Massachusetts moderate” Mitt Romney. “Any rational person would conclude that Reagan couldn’t get elected today because the party has become too liberal.”

Republican orthodoxy certainly isn’t as strict as Bush suggests, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. If it were, the party’s nominee this year would be Michele Bachmann. But Bush is correct that the country can’t move forward without some kind of bipartisan agreement in Washington. No matter what Norquist says, addressing the “vast structural problem” of our indebted government will require both spending cuts and new taxes. “Those who rule out the possibility of compromise as a matter of ideology are undermining the public interest.” Try telling that to the “Kool-Aid drinkers on the far right,” said Joseph Sabino Mistick in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The “fear-mongering extremists” now controlling the GOP care about one thing—defeating Obama. “Not economic vitality. Not job creation. Not health care for all Americans.” They just want the president to fail.

Conservative opposition to Obama is not irrational, said David Brooks in The New York Times. At the heart of the yawning partisan divide is a clash of visions. Obama believes our current system will work fine once he raises taxes on the rich and plows billions of additional dollars into government programs supporting education and innovation. But conservatives think the welfare state created in the 20th century is broken. They see what is happening in Europe—“cosseted economies” collapsing beneath the weight of their entitlements—as proof that “the current model is collapsing,” and that the U.S. is headed down the same road as Greece and Spain. The only way out, they believe, is an entirely new approach based on conservative, free-market principles that puts faith in individuals, not government. This isn’t extremism, or partisan lunacy. “It’s a viewpoint.”

In November, we’ll find out whether a majority of voters want to sign on to that viewpoint, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. If Republicans lose to the hated Obama again, they will have to do some soul-searching, and admit that their “harsh partisan rhetoric turned off voters.” The party may finally see the wisdom of embracing moderation and compromise on issues like taxes and immigration—especially since Latinos have become a pivotal voting bloc in presidential elections. At that point, “the party will be casting about for somebody to lead it.” Hmmm. How about Jeb Bush, who has not only called for more compromise, but who speaks fluent Spanish and has a Mexican-American wife? In taking on the ideologues last week, Bush was clearly positioning himself “as the next leader of the Republican Party.”

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