These days Republicans are hollering that their party cannot prevail until they toss out maverick folks like Specter and McCain and get back to the “purity” of the Reagan philosophy. Their notion is that Reagan represents some “pure” philosophical ideal, which his successors betrayed.
Unfortunately, that’s hogwash.
People forget that Reagan was Chief Big Tent, holding the teepee door open for a lot of people who disagreed with each other, and even with Reagan, on a lot of big issues. A number of people have remarked that the three main groups in the Reagan coalition – cultural conservatives obsessed with abortion, fiscal conservatives obsessed with tax cuts, and neocons obsessed with the Soviets – would be three different political parties, if this was Europe rather than America. Reagan got those three groups to support each others’ programs, and built a formidable coalition. Phyllis Schafly learned to campaign for tax cuts and bash the Soviets; fiscal conservatives like Bush 41 learned to sing the anti-abortion sheet music. People still question Reagan’s intellect, but seriously – give the man credit for even envisioning the prospect of these three groups of very pigheaded people, working together, when they had never really coordinated together before. Wow.
But then Reagan went further. He persuaded southern Democrats to go over the wall – some of them even switched parties, they liked Reagan’s vision of the GOP so much. He reached out to centrists from both parties. Conservative Democrats helped pass his Reaganomics program and his tax cuts in the house, defying Tip O’Neill. And the eternal nemesis of Republicans, labor unions! Even after Reagan conducted an undeclared war on labor unions, starting with the PATCO crisis, he still wangled an endorsement from the Teamsters in 1984, and got almost half the vote from union households. Only a leader like Reagan could have created the “Reagan Democrat” phenomenon.
Reagan built coalitions out of disparate groups who were indifferent or downright hostile to each other. Purists they weren’t. Beneath their messianic rhetoric, they were some pretty smart, pragmatic politicians.
Reagan’s successors did the opposite: they actually were purists, and drove people away.
The new Republicans of the Gingrich/DeLay/Rove generation have done incrediblly stupid things to chase people out of the party, things that often had nothing to do with their policies, their performance, and their ethical outrages. They did all they could to use legislative and regulatory tools to attack anyone connected withDemocratic power: this explains the K Street project, the effort to crush Democratic lobbyists, their holy war against big-donor trial lawyers, and their war of attrition against unions. They put thousands of blacks in prison by launching the War On Drugs and supporting discriminatory laws such as the crack cocaine statutes. They tried to criminalize the entire Hispanic population of the country, and even condemned McCain for taking a moderate stance on immigrants. A huge part of their 2004 campaign was a war on gays; one of their major 2008 candidates wanted to put HIV and AIDS patients in concentration camps. They turned their back on women, with respect to abortion, education, economics and a dozen other issues. They attacked centrist Democrats like Clinton, and even centrist Republicans like Chafee, Specter, Collins, Jeffords and Snowe. They attacked military veterans like Murtha and Kerry who made the terrible mistake of questioning Bush’s crimes and follies. Anybody who even questions Bush hates our troops – they’re traitors!! And then in 2008 they even condemned Bush and McCain – their stand-bearers for the last three elections – for betraying the “purity” of the Reagan ideal.
It is difficult to find, in modern history, political groups who were so arrogant in their power that they declared Robespierre-like holy wars against anyone suspected of political “impurity”, including their own allies in the "revolution". The only people I can think of, in that regard, are the hardline textbook Marxists under Mao, the KGB and the Khmer Rouge, and the medieval Islamic extremists in Iran and in the Taleban. The difference being, those groups never really had to worry about voters. The Republicans do.
So after Reagan spent all that effort in attracting cultural and fiscal activists, and foreign-policy hardliners, and centrists, and conservative Democrats, and union families, all under one big Republican tent.....The new Republicans, claiming to be the philosophical heirs of Reagan, waged war on all Democrats, lawyers, unions, blacks, Hispanics, gays, women, centrists from both parties, veterans, political leaders like Bush and McCain...everybody who wasn’t pure enough for them. Reagan kept the Republicans on board and attracted Democratic voters and leaders; the new Republicans are driving away not only all the Democrats but the moderate half of their own party.
Such are the fruits of arrogance. These clowns think they’re fulfilling Reagan’s legacy, when in fact they are destroying it.