Originally published in Official Artur Davis
For the same reasons that I didn’t apply the gaffe label to Barack Obama’s sanguine musings about the economy, or Bill Clinton’s rebelliousness on Democratic tax policy, I wouldn’t apply it to Jeb Bush’s recent pronouncements on the Republican Party. The former Florida governor, and the man who would have been elected president in 2000 if he had turned a couple of percentage points in his first Governor’s race, meant to put the force of his substantial appeal behind a warning about the erosion of a certain generational brand in the GOP. If not exactly a lament for Rockefeller type moderates, it was certainly a wishfulness for a strategic and political approach that coopted Democrats on themes like education and healthcare, and that sought active ownership of issues like immigration reform: in other words, the template that got two other members of the family elected president.
Conservative cynics will note that said template did not prevent one Bush from losing reelection, and another from a disastrous second term, and that the failings of both yielded the two most successful Democratic candidacies in the last three decades. But Bush is certainly right about the long view: a Romney presidency that wanted to make headway on entitlements, that wanted to make the authentically bold education reforms Romney is proposing a reality, and that wanted to end Obamacare without triggering a politically dangerous surge in the ranks of the uninsured, would need room to maneuver and navigate through implacable Democratic opposition. It is not heresy to envision a Romney term that breaks gridlock instead of perpetuating it.
As to the part of the Bush address that made headlines, the “Reagan couldn’t survive in today’s Republican Party”, there is a value in a history lesson, and no one has told it better than Craig Shirley’s two year old book on the 1980 campaign, “Rendezvous With Destiny“. Shirley reconstructs the late seventies as anything but a monolithically conservative climate and the Republican Party as a fractious group that was hardly reconciled to Reagan’s candidacy. Edward Kennedy was the country’s most charismatic political star and promised unabashedly to revive an assertive liberalism that did not intend to be constrained by the era’s inflationary threat. Reagan’s opposition was credible and experienced and moderate alternatives like George HW Bush and Howard Baker commanded the loyalties of a significant element of the Republican funding base. Gerald Ford sat on the sidelines, but ran close with Reagan in Republican preference polls as late as the winter of 1980.
That Reagan won so comfortably seems like historical inevitability now, the natural progression of a country shedding itself of sixties style excess. Shirley’s masterful re-telling of that cycle describes something infinitely more inspiring and complex: a brilliantly tenacious politician who survived through the force of his own personality and who re-imagined conservatism as freedom rather than austerity, as a source of confidence rather than reproach. It does Reagan little justice to shrink him to artificial proportions by suggesting that he was only the sum of the elements of his platform; it shortchanges the ideological instability of the times to interpret Reagan’s victory as a simple instance of a candidate meeting his party’s and a majority of the country’s moods. More than any American figure since JFK, Reagan prospered by shaping that mood himself.
And the notion that Reagan’s governing style was the hallmark of an ambidextrous Great Compromiser who couldn’t thrive in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere? It would amuse the air traffic controllers union he rolled over, and the congressional Democrats he bludgeoned in his first budget fights, and the communists he confronted in Europe and Central America. The deals Reagan did cut, over Social Security financing, for example, were imperfect then and now, but they didn’t define Reagan or diminish him with movement conservative because the times he was unmovable were actually the moments that built the public’s confidence. And the rebuilding of that confidence in the aftermath of the disastrous seventies is what installed him as a bipartisan presidential icon, much more than the specifics of a legislative track record.
I won’t venture a guess on how Ronald Reagan would have handled a dilemma like immigration. The simplest thing to say is that a battered border with Mexico was hardly a dominant security threat in a decade when intercontinental ballistic missiles were pointed our way. Nor was low-wage undocumented labor the pressure point in high unemployment communities that it is today. It is the easiest conceit in political argument—putting thoughts in the heads of another generation’s leaders and shape shifting their words into today’s contexts—and it likely works not at all with a politician who defied prediction as much as Reagan.
The fact is that Romney doesn’t have to be Reagan to win and doesn’t have to govern like Reagan to succeed. But it is just as true that but for the way Reagan altered his times, Romney might be leading a party that was a shrunken, permanent opposition camp with no definitive ideological banner: in other words, exactly what it appeared to be in the mid seventies. The guy who figured out how to lift the party out of those doldrums would have won a lot of primaries this year.