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.

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.

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.

Clinton-hating couldn't quite equal anti-communism as a glue to hold together the conservative coalition—but it helped. And George W. Bush, who offered a born-again Christian veneer on top of a blue-blooded, business-minded Republican background, was just able to please all the factions. With some help from the Electoral College, he squeaked into the White House in 2000; and aided by a weak John Kerry candidacy and September 11, stayed there in 2004. But the coalition, already oozing around the edges, began to hemorrhage during the Bush presidency, with Reagan revolutionaries balking at some aspects of the president's fundamentalist social agenda and interventionist foreign policy—but most of all at what they saw as his profligate spending.

Daniel Mitchell, a former fellow at the Heritage Foundation who is now at the Cato Institute, said that the alliance between fiscally conservative libertarians, on the one side, and social conservatives, on the other, has always been a "marriage of convenience." It has worked because for the most part they have been "moving in the same direction" toward the same ends, although sometimes for different reasons. But, as Cato's John Samples said, there are ultimately internal contradictions between the two: libertarianism's emphasis on liberty, limited government, and individualism implies a certain skepticism about any ideology that offers "final answers," as the religious right does on personal moral questions. Bush, Samples believes, has been a "divisive factor" and has damaged his own coalition, especially alienating libertarians by going into Iraq with "no strong defense justification" and expanding the federal government's power and budget. "If the Democrats did what Bush is doing," he said, "they'd be going apeshit." As a result, he says, the "Republican brand has lost some of its meaning."

In the current primary race, the diverse field of candidates exemplifies the breakdown of the Republican coalition. "Every Republican," Mitchell observes, "says 'I am the new Ronald Reagan.' They're trying to out-Reagan one another." Yet unlike Reagan, each appeals to a few of the constituent factions, and none represents all. Mike Huckabee may thrill the evangelicals with his credentials as a preacher, his denial of evolution, and his past support for quarantining people with HIV/AIDS, but other conservatives pale at the idea of him having control over fiscal policy, much less the nuclear button. Constitution-waver Ron Paul has attracted a faithful following, but even many libertarians aren't supporting him; Cato's Samples says there's "not a lot of enthusiasm for Paul" at the institute, and cites racially tinged nativism and conspiracy theories some have found in the Texas Congressman's newsletters. The hawks who liked Rudy Giuliani before they actually saw much of him now seem to agree with the New York Times that the "real" Giuliani is "a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man." Mitt Romney has pandered to all factions—worshipping the freemarket, denouncing his own past moderate social positions, and warning of the Muslim fundamentalists' plan to "unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate." Yet he appears to have convinced none of them.

Can John McCain, or anyone else, pull the winning coalition back together? In New Hampshire, where the Arizona senator rose from the dead, his single most important supporter was the Manchester Union Leader. The paper, whose influence in conservative circles reaches far beyond New Hampshire, was clearly measuring the candidates against the Gipper in settling on an endorsement. "We're desperately seeking Ronald Reagan," its editorial page editor, Andrew Cline, wrote in late December. The paper could well have chosen to back Romney, who was studiously saying all the things he thought Reagan would have said. But the Union Leader> backed McCain largely because of his thinking on foreign policy—not just his determination to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and chase Osama bin Laden "to the gates of Hell," but also, as Cline said in an interview last week, "listening to him talk in great detail off the top of his head about how he will use diplomatic and military resources abroad." McCain managed to pass conservative muster on domestic issues, as well, with his concentration on cutting spending and setting a limited government agenda. Cline believes McCain would only serve one term, and during that time there would be "only a few things he wants to get done" on the domestic side. These would focus on what conservatives like to call "entitlement reform"—which means trimming away at what's left of the social safety net. He cites McCain's positions on Social Security, where he would add private individual accounts, and on Medicare, where he would appoint a commission to recommend reforms to the program.

On the other hand, there are influential Christian Right leaders like Focus on the Family's James Dobson, who say they won't vote for McCain "under any circumstances," citing his past acquiescence to abortion and gay unions. It's clear that the social conservatives have started to feel dissed since several high-profile Republicans commented that the 2006 midterm elections were a call for the party to move toward the center. "Values Voters are not going to carry the water for the Republican Party if it ignores their deeply held convictions and beliefs," Dobson has warned. "If they continue to abandon their pro-moral, pro-family and pro-life base, the big tent will turn into a three-ring circus."

In addition, the antiwar libertarian contingent that supports Ron Paul could even flee the party before they'll vote for McCain. Other libertarians, including those at Cato, favor an open, market-driven immigration policy, but a wide swath of conservatives hate McCain for his tolerant stance on immigration. Others object to his efforts at campaign finance reform, which threaten the cash pipeline from corporations into the party's coffers. And some Republicans despise him simply for failing to be an obedient party man through his years in Congress.

There's one thing, however, that all Republicans will always hate more than they hate one another: the Clintons. In Iowa, Barack Obama pulled in votes from independents and even some Republicans; in New Hampshire he and McCain split much of the independent vote. But the right uniformly loathes Hillary and also detests Bill, who is more and more emerging as her true running mate. Running against the two of them, offers an opportunity for the tattered conservative coalition to pull itself together to oppose what Peggy Noonan calls a Clinton "dynasty."

Some commentators have suggested that as a woman, Hillary Clinton would have no chance against the war hero McCain. But Hillary is no Dukakis-style dweeb, standing up in a tank turret with a helmet on her head; she's a fighter to the core, and if she's nominated she will also surely move to the right, on foreign policy and everything else. In terms of both policy and personal grit, she would make a tough opponent for McCain. But ultimately, what may decide the election is whether Republicans can mobilize all factions of its fractured conservative coalition. Like all voters, Republicans this year will vote with their feet—and the specter of another Clinton in the White House might just get them walking in unison.