It seems unlikely that Ronald Reagan would feel comfortable in today’s Republican party. With the GOP leadership candidates relentlessly attacking each other’s credentials and character, it’s worth recalling Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment—’Thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican.’ Try telling that to born-again Catholic Newt Gingrich, who thinks being nasty is good policy, or social conservative Rick Santorum, who finds a new way to alienate a portion of the traditional GOP electorate on a daily basis, or on again-off again frontrunner Mitt Romney, who seems more robotic by the day. This race has already been vicious beyond description, even with Democrats staying out of it.
When it comes to presenting their vision of conservatism, this year’s crop of candidates tends toward exclusivity. There is no effort at inclusion in any of the major speeches or through the many debates. Santorum has made social conservativism his lietmotiv, thereby alienating women and gays. Romney has veered so much to the right on immigration reform that he will have trouble appearing saleable to a Latino electorate that has an otherwise conservative predisposition. And Gingrich’s critiques of Obama are so over-the-top that few voters outside his band of followers take him seriously.
Former Governor Jeb Bush has expressed alarm at the fact that the contenders are basing their appeal on fear and emotions, while former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani says his party is no longer contemporary. If Ronald Reagan were a candidate, you can be sure his message would be far more unifying, devoid of the current meanness, and would lead rather than chase the various factions of the party .
Today’s GOP doesn’t have a meaningful moderate constituency, one that’s able to find common policies and values within varying expressions of conservatism. Social conservatives speak of Christian values but articulate a notion of exclusion and display a lack of Christian charity towards those who disagree with them. Theirs is a world of good and evil, and Satan is the opponent. Meantime, Tea Party types have shown that intransigeance and dogmatism is their policy. This has forced the candidates to play to a crowd with extremist views, making the GOP appear out of touch with the mainstream. Finally, establishment Republicans no longer have an ascendancy over the unruly factions. And while they have coalesced behind a weakened and unimpressive Mitt Romney, their authority is constantly challenged by a new anti-Mitt candidate every few weeks. They have kept the upper hand thanks to greater financial resources and negative advertising, however this was not the way Reagan won his party’s nomination.
Reagan was at heart a conservative of deep conviction. He started out as a liberal Democrat supporting FDR, but gradually became the principle spokesperson for the conservative movement. In the 1960s, when Barry Goldwater appeared as the stern conservative nominee against the liberals in power, Reagan put a human face on his newly found ideological home.
By the 1970s, after two successful terms as governor of California, Reagan had emerged as the consumate modern conservative —firm and principled, but open to compromise. As president, he governed through compromise and most historians recognize his presidency as a transformative one. Sure, he raised taxes 11 times and increased the debt ceiling 18 times, but he was able to keep his party united throughout his two terms. Even opponents like Tip O ‘Neill had a grudging admiration for Reagan.
Each of the Republican candidates, including the marginal Ron Paul, claims a political lineage to Ronald Reagan. But we all know who Ronald Reagan was, how he played the game of politics and how he governed. It is now an historical fact that Reagan preferred inclusion to exclusion. And Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul are not Ronald Reagan—and never will be if we judge by the current mood in the Republican party.