Lessons of the Reagan Years
by Tom Donelson on September 5, 2011 at 6:16 AM
I just finished Steven Hayward's two volume masterpiece on the Reagan years and found many lessons applicable for Republicans in the upcoming 2012 elections. Reagan proved adaptable when it came to designing innovative polices and campaign programs while advancing the conservative movement. Reagan made economic growth the centerpiece of Republican polices for the next three decades when he added the Kemp Roth tax reduction to traditional GOP deficit reduction plans as the centerpiece of his economic plan during the 1980 election. Reagan taught Republicans that marginal tax rates matter, a lesson that needs to be relearned today.
In the 1970’s, the Republican Party was at its nadir in the post World War II era as the result of the Watergate scandal and bad economic policies instituted by Nixon and Ford that lead to stagflation and Soviet ascendancy world wide. In many ways there are similarities today with the end of the 70’s as many Americans are suffering economically. When Reagan began his last run for Presidency; an inexperienced Democratic President proved inadequate to the job and inflation was running at double digit pace and it did not help that America was losing ground to the Soviet Empire. America is once again led by an inexperienced Democratic President whose economic plan is sinking the economy.
Reagan came into the campaign with many questions, was he too old? Or too extremist Has time passed him by? Much of the Republican establishment was not certain that he could win and they opposed his addition of supply side growth economics to classical GOP deficit reduction plans. The Reagan election was not preordained and in doubt until the final weekend of the election, but today we view history in the rear view mirror, and history has shown the success of the Reagan years.
The first lesson of the Reagan years was to keep it simple and focus on the economy. Reagan made the 1980 election about Carter's mishandling of the economy; thus he was able to parry attempts of making the election about him. In 2012, Obama will make the elections about his opponent, and no matter who is nominated; Obama will claim his opponent an extremist. One method Reagan used was to use Kennedy tax cuts of the 1960’s as a model for his own tax cuts. Kennedy tax reduction plans passed two decades earlier were similar to Kemp-Roth and Reagan's use of it not only infuriated Democrats, but it allowed Reagan to hug the center on a crucial issue. How could Reagan be an extremist if his tax plans were similar to John Kennedy, a hero to many Democrats in 1980?
In 2012, Republicans have to remind voters that their tax and budget plans are similar to the Erkine Bowles Alan Simpson report commissioned by Obama himself, so how can the Republican be extremists when they have modeled their own plans after the bipartisan commission solutions? Bowles-Simpson calls for lower marginal tax rates to go with serious entitlement reforms, so while there are details that differ from the Republican plan; the reality is that it is the Democratic Congressional leaders and Obama outside the mainstream. Just as Reagan did in 1980, focus on the economy.
The biggest disadvantage Republicans have is that many voters including quite a few Republicans don’t trust them to fulfill their agenda. It should be pointed out that in the late 70’s, much of America thought just as little about Republicans as they do today and it didn’t help that Nixon began the decade with the biggest expansion of the regularity state, imposed wage and price controls, and took America off the Gold Standard, which lead to a decade of stagflation.
Republicans are the party of smaller government, if by default. What Reagan successfully did was to remind voters of that and just as importantly, campaigned in 1980 that things will change. He had a plan that combined promotion of economic growth and reducing government. In 2012, Republicans must combined a similar platform for it is obvious Obama doesn’t know what to do anymore than Carter did in 1980.
Republican Congress must promote itself as part of the agent of change and change the narrative. While the Republicans in Congress are rated worse than Congressional Democrats, Republicans need to remind voters that they are not the Party of the past decade. The infusion of Tea Party changes the nature of the Party and Republicans are the Party that actually proposed a budget whereas Senate Democrats has yet to propose a budget for 2012 nor did they propose one for 2011. The media, with the exception of Fox News, will not side with the Republicans, but there are ways to get around the media. Reagan reminded voters that his Party was not the Party of the past, but a new Party with new ideas to change America.
There is a feeling now just as it was in 1980, America has seen its best days. Reagan optimism shaped the 1980’s and the 1990’s and the Republican nominee must similarly remind Americans that our best days are still ahead. Just as in 1980, much of the elites are preparing Americans to be merely second best, but somehow a plan that forces America to accept that they are second best is not a political winner. In the 1980’s, we were told we had entered an era of limitation, and we are being the told the same thing in 2011. The Party that tells the narrative that we are not in decline but ready for new Renaissance is the Party that will win. There is a coalition ready to be formed that includes moderates, independents and conservatives to promote government restraint and economic growth. The Party that taps into that will win. Democrats can’t claim the mantle of change since they are the causative agent of much of what happened, so the mantle falls to the Republicans by default.