Election 2016

How Ronald Reagan's Ghost Haunts the GOP

The Republican Party will never command the future unless it gives up its ridiculous nostalgia for its last great figure.

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So the second GOP candidates debate is taking place tonight at 6 P.M. ET for the JV and 8 P.M. ET for the varsity squad. Reason will be all over it, right here, with a live Twitter stream and constantly updated posts, so bookmark us.

The debate is being staged at Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California because the 21st-century Republican Party has an unkillable love affair with Dutch that is more indestructible than the one betwen Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenahl in Brokeback Mountain. Even before he packed up from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, GOP candidates at all levels were channeling Reagan's soul like over-caffeinated kids at a slumber party channeling ghosts with a Ouija Board.

For Republicans, Reagan is like Zardoz: A giant, god-like figure that descends periodically from the heavens and inspires fear, awe, rapture. Republicans must genuflect and bless themselves when invoking his name, image, fortitude, you name it. And they must do so in all circumstances.

It's easy enough to understand why: Despite the inevitable second-term scandals, Reagan overall left things far better than he had found them. He'd laughed off an assassin's bullet, won a historic landslide for his second term, reformed the tax code, rebooted the economy, stared down our enemies abroad (less through action and more through flexing), wore a smile through terrible recessions, and handed the White House to a sitting vice president for the first time in 150 years. He even opened the floodgates to more immigrants.

Oh yeah, that's kind of a problem, isn't it? Among Reagan's achievements was exactly the sort of immigration reform that today's party stands athwart yelling Stop! In fact, the majority of the 2016 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination aren't just against immigration (legal or otherwise), they're yapping about repealing "birthright citizenship."

That is, when they're not getting red-faced over defunding Planned Parenthood (which has moved to first-day action on the calendar of many of the hopefuls) and defending County Clerk Kim Davis's First Amendment right to shred the Constitution (it's come to this: Republicans championing a government worker for refusing to do her job).

Let me suggest that the GOP's Reagan fetish is not helping the party anymore. In fact, it is actively holding them back. Reagan was born in 1911 and he punched out over a quarter-century ago in another century. The Soviet Union still existed when he left office. Leona Helmsley was a big story in 1989. Savings & Loans were a thing in 1989. Taylor Swift wasn't yet a thing for a good chunk of 1989.

And yet whenever a Republican dares criticize or question the wisdom of Ronald Reagan, he or she gets covered in green goo. That happened last year when Rand Paul had the temerity to point out that The Great Communicator was overly fond of borrowing money and increasing the size, scope, and spending of government.

But until Republican presidential aspirants unstick themselves from the flypaper of the worst elements of Reagan's legacy—reliance on deficit spending, inattention to long-term funding problems of inherently unsustainable old-age entitlements and shrugging off waste in defense spending—and inspire themselves with the best—a genuine sense of America as a welcoming city on a hill, a belief in unity and building consensus despite long odds, a forceful yet restrained foreign policy—they will have a tough time moving into the White House.

Since 1988, a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote just twice. And the party, which is constantly looking backward—past Reagan, even, to some mythical time when there were no race or gender issues and any recession was solved with a tax cut and a spending hike, and foreign policy wasn't a problem because we were always at war or at least had a peactime draft going—in a way that keeps it from being to seriously engage a world that is increasingly decentralized and seemingly chaotic. At least since Newt Gingrich, the GOP has billed itself as the party that gets the future, that small is good and that people everywhere want the same thing: individual rights and the ability to make their way in the world. Yet the GOP is constantly on the prowl for the next Great God Reagan who will make them swoon and clear the brush that clutters their path.

They can find inspiration from Reagan on how to confront a future they should embrace: One in which governments, corporations, religions, and other traditional sources of authority have less and less power over not just the good guys but the bad ones too. But today's GOP is too firmly facing backwards to embrace a country that is looser in terms of morality and lifestyle, and a world that benefits from cultural and economic engagement more than military threats and occupation.

Ever since I heard that the second debate was being held at the Reagan Sepulchre in Simi Valley, I've been thinking about a talk that former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gave some years ago to a conservative group. This was when "Mitch the Knife" was widely considered to be presidential material.

I can't reproduce the exact phrasing but the gist went something like this. Daniels talked about going to college in the late '60s and early 1970s. He talked about how there were always a bunch of lefties and progs around on campus, talking about FDR and the New Deal and how it hadn't gone far enough. Daniels said he'd tell those folks to get bent (again, the phrasing isn't exact), because the New Deal was like 30 years ago, man, and it doesn't have very much to do with today's America.

So far, so good. Conservative-libertarian audiences like peeing on campus radicals and FDR. Daniels pulled some applause and hoots. But then he went on to say something that was really fricking awesome. He pointed out that here "we"—Republicans, he meant, or maybe fiscal conservatives more broadly—were in the 2000s and all "we" could do was invoke St. Ronald Reagan like he was the second coming of Jesus H. Christ (again, not his phrasing). Daniels looked around the room and said, You know, we're further in time from Reagan than those half-baked New Dealers were when I was in college. We've got to get new ideas, new policies, and a new vision of government. Times have changed. America has changed. Budget realities have changed.

I don't expect to here many new ideas, new policies, or new visions of government tonight. Do you? Most likely, we'll hear a lot of talk about how the Iran deal stinks on ice and how Obama is a dupe or a sellout or worse. Not much will be said about how U.S foreign policy under a Republican president and Congress blanched the earth for a decade-plus in two diferent countries and killed hundreds of thousands of people (including our own boys and girls) without leaving much to be proud of. Reagan, who approved fewer troop deployments in his two terms than Bill Clinton did, will be invoked as candidates talk about the need for more bombs and less butter. Reagan, who was divorced and generally unchurched and who helped legalize abortion in California and who didn't seem overly bothered by gays, will preface every invocation of the need to return to traditional values. All the candidates will talk about his genius at cutting taxes but exactly none will talk about cutting spending, even though tax rates are much lower than they were in his day and spending much higher.

A number of the big players on tonight's stage—Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Donald Trump—started life in the shadow of larger-than-life fathers. They are stand-ins for the Republican Party as a whole. It's a group that can neither replicate its father's success nor strike out for new territory that it can explore and build on. And until it does, the Republican Party, at the presidential level anyways, has nowhere to go but backwards.