Students of politics understand the historical importance of the “Reagan Democrats”—those predominantly working-class cultural conservatives who were integral to both of Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns for president. Even after Reagan left the White House, this powerful voting bloc exerted its influence by helping to sweep George H.W. Bush (and Bill Clinton, “a new kind of Democrat”) into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, they’re key to the fate of America’s major political parties—but not in a way either would like.
These days, a fight is on for the soul of the Republican Party. We see it in the rise in annual dinners and galas where guests wistfully raise toasts to the Gipper. We’ve watched it play out in the Senate as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul try to one-up each other’s talkathons. We hear it in the House, as Speaker John Boehner blames conservative and free-market grassroots groups for the fiscal policy deadlock in his Chamber.
While it holds more political power, the Democratic Party is not without its schisms. At the leading edge is the disappointment over President Obama’s continuation of George W. Bush’s military policies and his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. It widens with the jaw-dropping disbelief over the abject failure of the Affordable Care Act rollout, the increased use of military drones, and the surveillance scandals surrounding the National Security Agency. When Saturday Night Live mocks them more than Republicans, then indeed, “Houston, we have a problem.”
The White House has responded by returning the venerable (and formidable) John Podesta to its hallowed halls. Not only is this an acknowledgment that Team Obama botched the most basic political management (it took them five years to figure that out!?), but given Podesta’s insider experience, it underscores the White House’s strategy of circumventing Congress by using the regulatory agencies to impose the President’s will. It’s as if the President has tired of his temper tantrum and brought in the older brother to bully the other kids.
The Republicans, in contrast, have yet to find their “Great Strategist to Rule Them All.” The libertarian-conservative alliance is genuinely fraying—and there’s even a debate over what the latter means. This is exemplified recently by conservative pontificates David Brooks and Michael Gerson. Alluding to a series of essays in the latest issue of National Affairs, both writers exude their own form of GOP hand-wringing for the good old days of the Reagan and yes, Bush 43 years—when conservatives were “compassionate”; Nancy Reagan just said “no”; and American exceptionalism led to that great City on a Hill.
What does this have to do with Reagan Democrats? Everything.
The return of Podesta and attempts by conservative intellectuals to rebrand the GOP platform are, in the end, chess moves to regain each party’s political base—power grabs to fill a perceived power vacuum. For Podesta, that vacuum opened when the expectation that the President could manage a country met the reality that he cannot. For Gerson, it arose when perceived anti-government sentiments ran smack into establishment Republicans’ more positive, Burkean view of the State. As Gerson comments, “For too many, government’s obligation to protect individual liberty comes first, second, and last, while concepts such as the common good, despite bearing their own conservative pedigree, are regarded as so much liberal claptrap.”
The difference this time is that there are no more Reagan Democrats left in the Democratic Party. As Pollster Stan Greenberg wrote in The New York Times in 2008, they have been replaced by a wealthier, professional, highly educated elite. Which makes it all the more galling when Democrats preach about income disparity while Washington, D.C.’s wealth expands exponentially from government largesse.
Yet, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the Reagan Democrats still linger throughout the GOP (George Will’s quip that they became the Republican base aside). If they’re there, they are angrier at government, and the younger ones are more socially tolerant of changing drug, sex, and marriage mores than previous generations. Against this reality, the nostalgia displayed by Republicans for the good old days only further illuminates the current GOP leadership’s lack of vision.
So, the Democrats will grasp for power by arrogantly pushing paternalistic and elitist policies that will bankrupt the country and kill innovation. Republicans, meanwhile, will grab it by acting more “compassionate” and developing marketing policies for “good government” proposals that give mere lip service to market mechanisms. When George W Bush said, “I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market system,” he wasn’t kidding.
Americans are increasingly identifying as Independent, and the Reagan Democrats aren’t coming back Washington tired of them a long time ago.