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February 1, 2008
Can John McCain Pass
the GOP’s Reagan Purity Test? (Can Anyone?)
John McCain, all but
left for dead in the early stages of the presidential campaign, appears
to have comfortably seized the lead in the GOP primaries, having won
both South Carolina and Florida and holding great momentum heading into
In an election year
without a clear establishment candidate, the Republican establishment
has been clear all along that they prefer Anyone But McCain. From Rush
Limbaugh to Grover Norquist to the entire National Review
editorial staff, leading GOP stalwarts have major reservations about the
senator from Arizona. Sure, he’s a legitimate war hero, who has taken
solidly conservative positions on nearly every major issue throughout
his long career. But, clearly, he’s not a True Conservative, in the
Tradition of Ronald Reagan.
Why not? Well,
there’s his long-running feud with President Bush, his generally popular
standing in the media, and his opposition to torture (National Review’s
Katrina Jean Lopez even had the chutzpah to include “waterboarding” on a
list of Republican principles that McCain opposes.) He doesn’t have
nearly enough hostility to gays or illegal immigrants for GOP liking,
and – perhaps worst of all – he had the temerity to oppose the first
Bush tax cuts.
The revulsion about
McCain tells us a lot about what happened this year in the GOP race. I’d
assumed the candidates were merely lackluster, and perhaps they were.
But I think the real reason for the weak field is that the Republicans
have begun imposing a Reagan Purity Test that no candidate will ever be
able to meet. Not even Reagan himself.
Don’t forget that
while he did establish the winning formula and coalition that has become
a part of the GOP’s DNA, Reagan, at various times in his presidency,
raised taxes, negotiated with the Soviet Union and did little to
implement social change of a Christian nature. Were a GOP candidate to
govern as Reagan did today, he would likely be denounced as
un-Reagan-like by Limbaugh, Norquist and Co.
But if the Reagan
Legacy is defined the way today’s Republicans define it – multiple
marginal tax cuts, a tough posture abroad, and total fealty to the
religious right – then it would be more properly titled the Bush Legacy.
Naming it after Reagan is a mere marketing trick, since his presidency
is seen as successful, while Bush’s, of course, is not.
(How does Dubya feel
watching these debates, in which the Gipper is praised to the skies but
his own name is barely mentioned? He’ll certainly come up in the general
election, when the Democrats turn the nominee into “McCain Bush” or
“Romney Bush,” the way Bill Clinton in 1996 defeated “Dole Gingrich.”)
The further we get
from Reagan’s presidency, the bigger a part of the Republican discourse
Reagan becomes. On Wednesday night, for the second time this cycle, the
remaining Republican presidential candidates held a debate at the Ronald
Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California. The event’s
setting had two appreciable effects – that the candidates were required
to shoehorn some mention of Reagan into every one of their answers, and
that every single position advocated by any of the candidates must, in
its very nature, be part of “the Reagan legacy.”
was the debate’s close, in which the candidates were, ludicrously, asked
by Anderson Cooper why Ronald Reagan would endorse them, were he alive
today. McCain and Mitt Romney both argued unconvincingly that a man who
has been dead for four years and out of politics for 20 must have
carefully formed opinions about the goings-on of the current campaign.
Mike Huckabee, to his credit, pointed how ridiculous this was . . .
until seconds later, when he instead said he would like to endorse
Romney, in a move
that was B.S.-heavy even by his standards, went off on a ludicrous
screed near the end of the debate about various positions Reagan would
hold today if he were alive, such as opposition to amnesty (something
the Gipper himself signed into law in 1986) and support of the Federal
Marriage Amendment (which wasn’t even introduced until long after Reagan
was last sentient.)
It’s gotten to the
point where candidates interpret Reagan’s presidency the way theologians
interpret scripture, picking out the parts they like and twisting them
to mean whatever they want them to mean. It’s like every candidate
approaches every issue with the following formulation: 1. I like
position X. 2. I also like Reagan, so 3. Position X, and I myself, must
be at one with the Reagan tradition.
Say what you will
about the Democrats and their various litmus tests. But they have
nowhere near the mandate for ideological purity, nor the cult of
personality, based around one particular ex-president. That’s what
happens when a party, rather than looking to the future, chooses to live
in the past.
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