Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Reagan—Bush 2004?

William Harper


June 28, 2004

With the notable exception of William Kristol, most political pundits advise the Bush campaign to exercise caution in invoking former President Ronald Reagan's legacy. The comparisons work in some instances and fail in others, they say, and some of those that work—the parallel association of tax cuts with deficits—may not be the kind the president would want to stress.

But President Reagan's passing reminded Americans that the Republicans' version of conservatism—a fabric of free market economics and unilateralist foreign policy stitched a little clumsily to traditional social mores—has come of age. It has a story to tell. No longer merely a set of aspirations in search of votes, conservatism has won the presidency, held it, lost it, and won it back again. Its capture of Congress in the mid-1990s has turned out to be much more than a temporary victory cobbled together from the Contract with America, high levels of incumbent retirements, post-census redistricting, and low morale on the Democratic side. Slim though their majorities have been, the Republicans are securely established in the legislative branch and will not be easily dislodged.

Having a story to tell is valuable in a political culture of weak parties, short attention spans, and single-issue interest groups. Narrative lends coherence to piecemeal experiments and molds them into a political philosophy. The American political narrative was once the sole possession of the Democrats. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson stood on the shoulders of Franklin Roosevelt. Both enjoyed sizable congressional majorities. The New Deal transferred its legitimacy to the Great Society; World War II made its bequest to the Cold War; Civil Rights lent it all dignity. Policies crafted in the flux of a progressive present took on the reassuring certainties of an earlier age.

Policy failures and the rise of conservatism, however, crippled the Democrats' narrative, and loss of electoral support caused the Democrats' collective memory to erode. At the party's nadir, candidates ran from their once proud liberal self-identification. Trying to capture the White House in 2004, therefore, has the added urgency for the Democrats of regaining a narrative lost and an identity in need of rebuilding. That project was not undertaken in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore chose not to tie himself closely to President Clinton. If he avoided Clinton's liabilities thereby, he did not attach himself to the policy achievements of the Clinton years—let alone reach further back.

By contrast, the Reagan legacy now comes to the rescue of the Bush brand of conservatism as all memory comes to our rescue—to remind, to reassure, to select, to spin, and above all to enable the past to make sense of the present. The political importance of President Reagan's passing will not be measured by the few points' bounce in President Bush's ratings in a set of June polls but in the way it provides a stable backdrop for the administration's current struggles.

Americans turned out in large numbers to honor the enduring and endearing good humor of Ronald Reagan. In the immediate aftermath of his passing, the conservative story appears secure. Starring the Great Communicator, whose benevolence blunts partisan barbs, conservatism's late twentieth-century incarnation will help Bush inspire Republicans to reelect him for conservatism's sake. Defective as it may be, awkwardly constructed as it is, criticized as it should be, conservatism has made itself the intelligible incarnation of the American political tradition.

Of course, the Democrats' progressive narrative used to appear equally secure—as unassailable as the party's congressional majority. That was before the Republicans reduced it to a comic strip featuring taxes, spending, waste, and ineptitude. Could not the Democrats reciprocate in 2004? Possibly. But today it's looking like a win for Reagan-Bush.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”