David Frum

04.24.13

How Libertarians Misread Reagan and Sidelined the GOP

Below is a guest post from Robert W. Patterson on how contemporary conservatives incorrectly remember the legacy of the Republican Party of the 1950s-1980s.

When reminiscing about the “good-old days,” Republicans often recall the 1980s, when the Reagan coalition won three presidential landslides. But to get back in the game, party leaders may need to look farther back — to a deeper GOP magic of which the Gipper and George H. W. Bush were the last acts.

GOP dominance in national elections after World War II did not start with Dutch Reagan but actually peaked with him. In the presidential elections from 1952 through 1988, Republican candidates went 7 for 10, and averaged 367 electoral votes. Since 1992, Republicans have gone 2 for 6 — 1 for 6 in the popular vote — and their electoral-vote average has plummeted to 211.

Their older, winning formula was the “Main Street” conservatism of Eisenhower and Nixon, which helped the party recover from the political trough of the 1930s and 1940s, when the GOP lost five consecutive presidential contests. Eisenhower, Nixon — and later Reagan — championed a center-right agenda that largely favored Middle America at home while cautiously pursing realism in foreign affairs.

Moreover, all three of these two-time Republican winners accepted bipartisan New-Deal reforms, including protections of key U.S. industries, their labor unions, and earned-benefits programs like Social Security and Medicare. Not to be minimized: their cultural sympathies stood with the then-expanding middle class against academic and media elites who snickered at bourgeois family norms while pushing sexual experimentation, adversarial feminism, and multiculturalism.

This commitment to ordinary Americans was broken by influential GOP thinkers and strategists after the 40th president left the White House in 1989. From libertarians advancing an Ayn Rand agenda of free trade, open borders, and tax cuts to neoconservatives dreaming of imposing American-style democracy on the Middle East, the previous consensus — which had established the GOP as the successor to the Franklin Roosevelt coalition — fell out of favor.

Democrats like Bill Clinton were happy to collude with these Republicans in passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, expanding the tax schemes of both Bush presidents that heavily favored investors over wage earners, and dismantling the Glass-Steagall firewall separating investment banking from commercial banking, which opened the door to casino capitalism — backstopped, of course, by taxpayers.

These bipartisan policy reversals may have performed wonders for the global investment community, but they have been a disaster for Main Street. Because of them, America shifted from a high-wage economy centered on industry and manufacturing to one built on outsourcing, financialization, and low-wage service jobs for much of the population.

The challenge facing the GOP is that the conservative think tanks believe that the laissez-faire economics they advance is the Reagan legacy. To be certain, Reagan’s rhetoric at times sounded libertarian, but his pragmatic policies were aligned — like Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s — with the interests of Middle America, not ideologues.

Unlike Bush 43, Reagan never entertained privatizing Social Security. While he slashed income-tax rates, his 1986 reform equalized tax rates for wages, dividends, and capital gains, disempowering Mitt Romney-type tax-shelter seekers. Nor was he a free trader: the Gipper granted more import relief to U.S. industry than any chief executive dating back to FDR. And he had no beef with private-sector trade unions, winning the Teamsters’ endorsement in 1980 and 1984.

Reagan is not the only president some conservatives misread. So committed to a sterile interpretation of “limited government” and the “founding principles,” the libertarian crowd now wants to chip Theodore Roosevelt off Mt. Rushmore. Never mind that TR laid the foundation of the glorious postwar years. Because the 26th president sought a federal role in promoting economic justice as well as economic growth, these Republicans dismiss TR as a proto-liberal who dislodged the country from the Constitution.

This historical amnesia does nothing to help the party. Instead of renouncing TR, party leaders should seek inspiration from the young president. Indeed, the party could mount his bully pulpit to negotiate another Fair Deal, a true “third way” between libertarianism and liberalism, or between the “malefactors of great wealth” and the radicalism of “socialism” and “anarchy,” in TR’s language. By challenging corporations to be stewards of nation-building, the GOP could recover the utility-styled capitalism that served as the cradle and keeper of the American Dream for the Greatest Generation.

A limousine liberal who promises welfare for all and bailouts for Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, Barack Obama is no Theodore Roosevelt. But by reclaiming the Rough Rider, Republicans could tap the winning formula that his Democratic cousin borrowed and which paved the way for the achievements of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan — and find the mojo to retake their political San Juan Hill.

Robert W. Patterson served in the George W. Bush administration, and the administration of Tom Corbett, governor of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @RWPatterson.