Talking Points

Reaganism is back

Smart conservatives have been saying for years that it's time to move on from Ronald Reagan. First Things published a symposium after Donald Trump's election inveighing against the "dead consensus" of "warmed over Reaganism." Younger conservatives frequently refer to "Zombie Reaganism" possessing the body of the Republican Party. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah warned in a 2013 speech at the Heritage Foundation that the country would soon be as far removed from Reagan's election as D-Day. That date came five years ago.

And yet ambitious Republicans are making the opposite bet ahead of next year's midterm elections: that the Reagan playbook still makes considerable sense because Democrats are pursuing policies that will recreate the conditions that led to his improbable landslide election in 1980. Crime, inflation, high gas prices, humiliation, and evacuation in the Middle East — campaigning against President Biden sounds eerily similar to running against Jimmy Carter.

What if there was a conservative realignment and no one came? The left wing of the Democratic Party, represented by up-and-coming Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as much as against socialist warhorse Bernie Sanders, is repudiating the Bill Clinton triangulation strategy — zombie Clintonism is also a thing. Some political liabilities that hampered the Democrats in the days of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, such as a perceived lenience toward criminals and foreign threats or a zeal for higher marginal tax rates, appear to be returning. 

Republicans could easily overreach on all this. America is a long way from stagflation. Biden is still trying to nudge the Democratic Party away from defunding the police, and the GOP could easily react to his botched Afghanistan withdrawal by becoming too hawkish for their own good.

Immigration, an issue neglected or dealt with through amnesty by 1980s Republicans, may be a contributing factor to why Reagan could win 49 states while Trump had to eke out a single term. Cultural conservatives do seem to be taking on a bigger role in the party's coalition and they are willing to contemplate things like regulating big tech that would have been anathema to most Reaganites, as they conclude a country can't live by tax cuts alone.

But if the Gipper is about to go the way of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater, it doesn't seem likely to happen during this election cycle. Zombie Reagan may be dead, but he's still walking.