It’s Still 1980!

Anyone paying attention to the late election cycle had to have become aware at some point that Republicans were obsessed with seeing parallels to the 1980 elections. Obama was cast as Jimmy Carter, of course, and though Mitt Romney wasn’t terribly Reaganesque, everything that was destined to happen made his election certain: the “economic referendum,” the “better off than four years ago” challenge, the late-breaking undecideds, the “enthusiasm gap,” etc. etc. Given what actually happened, you’d figure they might give it a rest.

But the Return to the Roaring Eighties meme may be getting a new life from a somewhat different direction: the argument that today’s Republican Establishment is finally being brushed aside to make way for–wait for it!–a Reagan Renaissance. This is the central conceit of a long column at Forbes by Ralph Benko, for whom the humiliation of Karl Rove means the coast is clear for the return of the true Reaganites in the party after the long Bushian interregnum. Gee, I had wondered why Rove had been kept around in a position of power and visibility in Republicanland after the conservative movement had repudiated all his strategies for expanding the party base (Medicare Rx drugs, No Child Left Behind, comprehensive immigration reform) as RINO conspiracies! Guess they needed to blame one more election on him! But here’s Benko:

Liberals do not grasp the distinction between Ronald Reagan and (either) George Bush. This blind spot creates a massive confusion and hazard to their ambitions. Obama defeated neither the Reagan Narrative nor Team Reagan. Team Bush appropriated, and then marginalized, both. Obama beat Team Bush, not Team Reagan. The implications are huge.

After a few graphs of describing the Reagan presidency as a period of unparalleled happiness for the entire human race, Benko explains the sad and treacherous denouement:

In an intraparty succession barely noticed by the mainstream media the Bush forces supplanted the Reagan forces within the GOP. Keepers of the Reagan legacy tended to end up at positions of respect and influence within the conservative movement. For example Reagan intimate, counselor, and attorney general Edwin Meese III long has held a prestigious office with the Heritage Foundation, the flagship of the Washington conservative establishment. Even though Meese was a General in the Reagan Revolution, though, his influence on a Bush cohort-dominated GOP — one that chiseled Reagan onto Rushmore while ignoring Reagan’s philosophy — is constrained.

Since “liberals” don’t know the difference between Reagan and the Bushes, it’s no wonder we missed this quiet coup in the GOP, masked as it was by the unanimous movement-conservative support for George W. Bush going into the 2000 elections. But in any event, the Babylonian Captivity is over, and now it’s time for the Reagan Renaissance, to be led at the state level by governors Mike Pence of Indiana and Sam Brownback of Kansas; in the Senate by Marc Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (under the tutelage of “the great Jim DeMint”), and in the House by Jim Jordan (Pence’s successor as chair of the right-wing Republican Study Committee), Kevin Brady (a Benko favorite for his “sound dollar” convictions) and “of course, Paul Ryan.”

Now I’m mentioning this column not just to make fun of Benko’s remarkable revisionism, but because it’s very likely his views are far more representative of those of the conservative activist base of the GOP than all the breast-beating we are hearing from gabbers and Beltway types about the need to win over Latinos or look less obstructionist. And even among the breast-beaters, if you peel away the rhetoric they are mostly saying, like Benko, that the best way to create a “new” GOP is to dig deeper into the party’s past. A “Reagan Renaissance” is just what the quack ordered for a political community that knows it’s sick but can’t give up its unhealthy addictions.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.