Commentary: Republican party needs Reaganesque vision

Former President Ronald Reagan.
Former President Ronald Reagan.

In a recent interview, New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg observed that a Republican comeback might come sooner than many expect.

The party is rediscovering its principles, he told The Wall Street Journal. The GOP is beginning to speak in one voice on its traditional issues.

What issues? Well, fiscal responsibility, of course. But also "giving individuals the opportunity to go out and create a better life for themselves, American exceptionalism, viewing America as a special place, not apologizing for our nation."

Nothing wrong with that list. But as a program for reviving a party it struck me as pretty thin, even considering that Gregg was speaking a bit off the cuff. I talked recently with a few GOP strategists and party figures, and what I heard wasn't much more specific – support for freedom, free enterprise, small business, national security, lower taxes …

Fine. But after the defection of Sen. Arlen Specter – at a time when the Republican Party's fortunes are as low as they've been in a generation – one yearns for a bit more beef.

Thirty years ago, things seemed clearer. Ronald Reagan built a campaign on the reality that America had a conservative majority, but that majority was split between economic conservatives and social conservatives.

The trick was uniting the two factions, which have a history of squabbling. Economic conservatives (among whom I feel most at home) put a priority on low taxes and smaller government. This is where supply-side economics finds its base.

Social conservatives value many of the same things but aren't quite so troubled by government action and are less reluctant to use it to advance their goals, including a pro-life agenda.

Reagan put together a program that brought economic and social conservatives together: tax cuts, opposition to communism, strong defense, hostility to big government, a pro-life and pro-family social program.

Today, many Republicans speak of going back to Reagan's principles, but I'm not exactly sure what they mean. Among the most powerful and successful elements of his program was supply-side economics. This was the wellspring of his optimistic message: The burden of government will be rolled back and America will prosper.

Tax cuts proved to be the right prescription at the right time. But the challenge for today's GOP is that to a great extent the policy problem has changed.

When Reagan took office, the top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent. He brought it down to 28 percent. Now it's 35 percent, and President Obama wants to raise it by about four percentage points for top earners.

The difficulty for Republican tax-cutters is that for most people, marginal tax rates are no longer seen as a major problem needing solution. The seldom-reported fact is that 60 percent of the nation's earners now pay little or no income tax at all and have little personal interest in income-tax cuts.

Don't get me wrong. I'm for tax cuts, but for politicians trying to woo voters, the tax-cut issue has gotten more complicated, even though tax cuts as a general proposition – as opposed to income taxes in particular – retain their political appeal.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen notes that John McCain lost in part because he allowed Obama to get to his right on tax cuts. Voters believed Obama was more likely to deliver tax cuts than McCain. For a Republican, this was an unbelievable blunder.

Despite all this, many Republicans in the political trenches – those planning campaigns and sizing up the next election – aren't down in the mouth. Far from it: In the tea party protests, they see the signs of a looming voter backlash against Obama's excesses. They point to consistent polling showing voters prefer smaller government offering fewer services rather than big government offering more services.

What's still missing, however, is the Reaganesque element – the policy or program that compels voters to imagine a brighter future.

Republicans expect to make solid gains in the congressional elections next year, given that many voters will no doubt feel the need to balance Obama with a stronger opposition. Certainly, some of the blanks in the GOP agenda will be filled in as candidates step up and offer platforms.

The party's current energies derive mainly from resistance to Obama – a critical function, given the threat he poses for the nation's fiscal health – but something that can carry a party only go so far.

Republicans are still searching for the missing spark, that creative, optimistic vision that's Reaganesque, but tailored for today's problems rather than those of the 1980s.

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