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Desperately Seeking Reagan

If there's one thing that can unite the GOP like the Gipper did, it's the specter of another Clinton in the White House.

| Tue Jan. 29, 2008 4:00 AM EST

It's only fitting that tomorrow the Republican presidential debates will come to an end precisely where they began almost nine long months ago—at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, the closest thing the Republicans have to hallowed ground. And it's to the memory of Reagan that the party turns as it struggles to hold together the fraying strands of the conservative coalition, one made up of traditional business interests, hawkish neoconservatives, Christian "social conservatives," and libertarians.

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Without strong support from each of these factions, the Republican nominee's road to the White House will become a nearly impossible climb. Yet each of the field's leading candidates—John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee—draws support from at best two or three of them. As it stands, says John Samples of the libertarian Cato Institute, the Republican Party is suffering from "depression, lack of interest, and confusion" in the wake of the Bush years. But all is not lost for the GOP. There's nothing that pulls squabbling troops together more effectively than the need to defeat a common foe, and no enemy is more reviled among Republicans than Hillary Clinton.

The New Right coalition that launched the Reagan Revolution came together in the late 1970s to oppose such developments as Jimmy Carter's handover of the Panama Canal and the SALT II disarmament talks. Appealing to business-minded fiscal conservatives from Main Street to Wall Street with its attack on New Deal regulation and social programs, the coalition also pleased many libertarians with its emphasis on reducing government, supporting states' rights, and defending national sovereignty against such threats as the United Nations. It drew in social conservatives through its shrewd alliance with Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and its opposition to such 1970s excesses as feminism and gay rights—and it was all held firmly together by anti-Communism. By drawing these groups together, the New Right delivered the White House to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan, a divorced former Hollywood actor, received two-thirds of the white Christian evangelical vote over Carter, who was himself a Christian evangelical from the Deep South. He also won support from so-called Reagan Democrats—working-class voters who were drawn in, often against their own economic interests, by the Republican's tough stance on national security, crime, and what they saw as a too-permissive society.

The Heritage Foundation became the brain trust of the Reagan era, spelling out the nuts and bolts of the conservative revolution in a publication called Mandate for Leadership, a catalog of the most horrifying things liberals could imagine: privatization of everything from the nation's highways to the air-traffic control system; closing down the Department of Education; ending food stamps and welfare; putting Medicare in private hands; rolling back health, environmental, and corporate regulation; and cutting taxes on the wealthy and on corporations.

These different projects were not considered to be ad hoc or pragmatic steps towards gaining power and running government. They were thought of as ways to implement a conservative ideology. Above all, New Right ideology sought to reverse the New Deal belief that government has the ability to aid, serve, and protect its people. "The nine most terrifying words in the English language," Reagan once said, "are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" Such rhetoric—and the accompanying cuts to both taxes and social programs—was music to libertarian ears, as well as a boon to corporate profits. Reagan cared less about crushing abortion and gay rights, but he paid enough lip service to issues of "morality" to keep the Bible-thumpers in the big tent, as well.

Reagan's zealous anti-communism initially won the hearts of the original crop of neoconservatives (though they ultimately found him too fainthearted in his quest to expand the American empire). Under the so-called Reagan Doctrine—also designed in large part by Heritage—U.S. troops remained at home, while covert support flowed to right-wing guerrilla insurgents (then known as "freedom fighters") to help "roll back" communism in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. He also benefited from the courage of democracy movements in Eastern Europe and Gorbachev-era reforms within the Soviet Union: Reagan may have said "tear down this wall," but it's Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel who did it, just in time to secure Reagan's legacy.

Reagan also said, "Politics is just like show business. You have a hell of an opening, coast for awhile, and then have a hell of a close." Though in fact, the administration that began and ended with a bang actually had to compromise on many of its goals, restrained by a solidly Democratic Congress that managed to fend off the most drastic cuts to the social welfare system and keep Robert Bork off the Supreme Court (though it also increased military spending). George H.W. Bush couldn't energize the conservative coalition the way Reagan had, and the party lost the White House in 1992.

But Mandate for Leadership paved the way for the Contract with America, and the Republican back bench, led by Newt Gingrich, seized Congress in 1994. It tied Clinton's hands except when he was willing to triangulate—as he all too often was, agreeing to bank consolidation, welfare "reform," and widespread deregulation.

Clinton also helped bring sex to the foreground as an increasingly important ingredient in the conservative coalition—not just Bill Clinton's irrepressible libido, but the notion of controlling sex and sexuality as an organizing force for government. Sex was brought to bear by the social conservatives, chief among them, the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who clustered around Washington and plunged into politics as never before. Unlike the libertarian and business-minded Republicans who were usually pushing for less government, social conservatives didn't hesitate to use the central government to achieve their goals, passing laws about who is allowed to have sex with whom, who should reproduce and under what conditions, what family structures were and were not legitimate. In addition to banning abortion, the social conservatives wanted to legislate sexual behavior by rewarding traditional nuclear families with tax cuts, punishing single mothers with welfare cuts, and ostracizing gay people in whatever way possible. The 1998 impeachment was a shining moment for the sex police. Conservatives of other ilks—including many who couldn't care less what the president did with his cigars—were all too happy to climb on board because of their general loathing of Bill Clinton and his policies.

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