Read Stephen's bio and previous columns


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 Super Tuesday.


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.”


Most embarrassing 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 Reagan.


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.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


Click here to talk to our writers and editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.


To e-mail feedback about this column, click here. If you enjoy this writer's work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry it.

This is Column # SS081. Request permission to publish here.

Op-Ed Writers
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Alan Hurwitz
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Gregory D. Lee
David B. Livingstone
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jamie Weinstein
Feature Writers
Mike Ball
Bob Batz
The Laughing Chef
David J. Pollay
Business Writers
Cindy Droog
D.F. Krause