New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Jacob Weisberg
February 24, 2016
HE supported the biggest amnesty bill in history for illegal immigrants, advocated gun control, used Keynesian stimulus to jump-start the economy, favored personal diplomacy even with the country’s sworn enemies and instituted tax increases in six of the eight years of his presidency.
He was Ronald Reagan.
The core beliefs that got Reagan elected and re-elected were conservative: lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger, more assertive military. But Reagan was also a pragmatist, willing to compromise, able to improvise in pursuit of his goals and, most of all, eager to expand his party’s appeal.
The current field of Republican presidential candidates invokes Reagan as a patron saint, but the characteristics that made him a successful politician seem lost on them. Instead, they’ve turned his party into a swamp of nativism, ideological extremism and pessimism about the country’s future, in direct opposition to Reagan’s example. And they’ve transformed primary season into a reality show of insults, betrayals and open feuds, defying the so-called 11th Commandment that Reagan espoused: Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.
Once in office, Reagan said that anytime he could get 70 percent of what he wanted from a legislature, he’d take it. Today’s congressional Republicans won’t settle even for 99 percent: Their mentality has shifted away from having policies and governing and toward a kind of bitter-end obstructionism.
In the early days of the presidency of Bill Clinton, congressional Republicans essentially went on strike, treating any legislative accomplishment as a Republican defeat, but they came to the table for a budget deal in 1997. With President Obama, they have largely refused to accept the basic legitimacy of a Democratic president. The tactical obstinacy of the 1990s has curdled into the belief that any compromise constitutes betrayal, a dynamic now playing out in the primaries.
The issue that shows the divide most sharply between Reagan and the current crop of presidential hopefuls is immigration. In the past, Republican candidates have been justly criticized for deploying racially coded messages around crime and welfare. But in the main, the party has for decades embraced Reagan’s notion of American identity based on immigration, assimilation and economic opportunity. Every Republican presidential nominee since Reagan has been a moderate on immigration, and has wanted to bring Latinos into the Republican fold.
How did the inclusive, forward-looking Republican Party of Reagan become the crass, xenophobic party of Donald J. Trump and Ted Cruz?
The rise of super PACs and the right-wing media has disempowered the party’s gatekeepers, while wage stagnation has widened the opening for populist demagogy. This year’s primary candidates have learned the lesson not only that exploiting prejudice around immigration and terrorism works politically, but so, too, does defying the party’s elders and its official apparatus. Thus Mr. Trump thrives and the establishment favorite, Jeb Bush, is already out.
A more surprising reason for the shift? Money. In economic terms, Republican politicians see increasing returns to extremism. The Citizens United decision has raised the potential financial stakes of presidential elections for media companies, political professionals and candidates alike. The presidential campaign of 2016 will most likely cost upward of $5 billion, more than 10 times the one that elected Reagan in 1980.
A lot of people get rich in a $5 billion industry, and some are politicians. Mr. Trump is not the only contender to make the calculation that running for president is win-win, burnishing “brand” value even for the losers. Ben Carson — yes, still in the race — seems more interested in selling books than in attaining higher office. Marco Rubio has already enjoyed years of patronage from a billionaire auto dealer in Florida.
The examples of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee underscore the point that a no-hope presidential run has more upside than downside. A career as a right-wing celebrity — a stint on Fox News, speaking fees, book advances — is more profitable than one in the Senate. These incentives have helped to shift the Republican Party from a party of opportunity to a party of opportunists.
The loser could be the party itself. Unless it repudiates the inflammatory rhetoric of the primary, it will lose Reagan’s claim to the center and become more like one of Europe’s chauvinistic right-wing parties. In the 1980s, it was said that the Democrats looked for heretics while the Republicans looked for converts. To watch the spectacle in the 2016 primaries is to see those tendencies reversed.
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