In later battles Ronald Reagan challenged the moderate incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, and Patrick Buchanan took on the ideologically suspect George H.W. Bush in 1992. Then there was the “Republican Revolution” led by Newt Gingrich, who, in revolt against moderates within his own party, orchestrated a national campaign in 1994 that resulted in the first Republican House majority since 1954, with Gingrich giddily installed as speaker. He briefly seemed the most powerful figure in American politics, a self-infatuated lecturing presence who eclipsed Clinton himself. But this insurgency too decomposed—amid the impeachment proceedings recklessly brought against Clinton. In 1998, a lackluster showing in the congressional elections prompted a fresh epicycle of revolt led by Dick Armey. It faded when Gingrich had to resign both his speakership and his House seat. He has not since held elective office—a circumstance that makes his current ambitions all the more improbable and also fitting for this complicated moment.
These episodes have all served to replenish a right-wing movement that for the past sixty years has been the vehicle of the only sustained radicalism in American politics, but has for most of that time enjoyed only narrow popular support. Conservatives point, as if by conditioned reflex, to the glories of the Reagan years, and celebrate him as a beloved leader whose message reached across traditional party boundaries.
But this ignores the many calculations he made. Reagan abandoned long-held dogmas (opposition to both Social Security and Medicare) and changed his positions on abortion (quite as Romney as done). Once in office he continually disappointed various constituencies, including the Christian right and neoconservatives. Assessing Reagan’s first term, Nathan Glazer concluded:
Reagan was neither the Goldwater of 1964, nor the Reagan of earlier campaigns, and his victory was that of a conservatism that accepted the major lineaments of the welfare state.
He left office, some forget, with a vastly increased budget deficit and national debt and with lower approval ratings than Bill Clinton had a dozen years later, as David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, remarks in his book Comeback (2007). He adds: “Running as a Reagan conservative, Bob Dole lost in 1996…. Had we nominated a Reagan-style conservative in 2000, we would certainly have lost again.”
Yet the spirit of insurgency has continued to animate the GOP, and whoever wins this year’s primary will have no choice except to embrace it, even as he realizes that his electability will hinge on the general perception that he doesn’t really believe the conservative ideology he espouses.
—February 9, 2012. This is the first of two articles on conservatism and current politics.