Thursday, December 29, 2011

Waiting for Reagan

Republicans still seem to be waiting for the next Reagan to appear. It isn't going to happen this election. Politicians like Reagan appear rarely - once in one or two generations and it takes far more than wanting to be Reagan to actually accomplish it. Barack Obama proved this. He expected to be a transitional president like Reagan or FDR. At best he has been an LBJ, creating an expensive new entitlement while polarizing the country.

If there is a new Reagan on the horizon he is probably a first-term governor of a large state. I can think of a half-dozen likely candidates but none of them have the experience or accomplishments for a presidential run. That is 4-8 years off.

In the meantime, I'd like to point out how hard it might be to recognize the next Reagan. The original one did not have a cake-walk to the White House.

California was a bit of a national joke while Reagan was governor. The idea of an actor running a state seemed preposterous. He was not really taken seriously until he bought airtime and addressed the nation during his run in 1976. He lost. The party was not going to force a sitting president out of office, even if he was unelected (Ford became Vice-President after Agnew resigned and President after Nixon resigned. 1976 was his first time on a national ballot). The high point for Reagan came at the Republican convention when he was nominated. A few minutes were set aside for a demonstration by his supporters. It exceeded the time allotted by an hour. Reagan's supporters were dedicated even if his candidacy was doomed.

Reagan's 1976 run caused some hard feelings. Ford dying believing that he would have won the election if Reagan had supported him.

While Reagan did win the nomination in 1980, George H. W. Bush made him work for it. Many Republicans worried that Reagan was too conservative and preferred the more moderate Bush. Plus the Ford supporters were still angry about 1976.

Polls taken during the Summer showed that voters were dissatisfied with both candidates. A theoretical challenger polled higher than either Reagan or Carter. John Anderson took advantage of that and ran as an independent. Anderson was the last liberal Republican and hoped to capture the dissatisfied voters. He probably did not affect the election - even if everyone who voted for Anderson had voted for Carter, Reagan still would have won.

The final polls before the election showed Reagan and Carter tied with a large block still undecided. Voters were still dissatisfied with both candidates. Several political cartoons that ran the day of the election showed the voters flipping coins to decide who to vote for.

It turned out that most of the undecided voters broke for Reagan. This was unusual. Undecideds usually break for the incumbent. Reagan always had a large percentage of closet voters - people who would not admit to voting for him, even to a stranger taking a poll.

Reagan had deep coattails and the Republicans took the Senate. This did not last. The economy entered a double-dip recession and unemployment hit a post-depression high. In 1982 the Democrats ran against Reagan and made huge gains in Congress and in state governments. The only Republican to challenge an incumbent Democrat and win was John Kasich and he was aided by redistricting.

The reason we remember Reagan so fondly is that he was able to work with a Democrat-controlled Congress and still pass a conservative agenda. Also, unlike the current recovery, the recovery in 1983 was robust. Unemployment was still high in 1984 but it was dropping fast and people felt good about their country and its future. Reagan also realigned the electoral map. The south went from being a stronghold for conservative Democrats to one for Republicans. Reagan was not able to reverse the growth of government but he slowed it.

None of the current group of candidates is likely to be able to match Reagan's successes. Even Reagan could not. There are no tools left to use. Taxes have already been cut, interest rates lowered and the deficit run up to unsustainable levels. Massive deregulation might help but it is hard to believe that Romney or Gingrich would want to shrink government enough to help and Ron Paul has no chance of winning (or getting anything passed if he won).

That leaves that group of governors. Several are charismatic and dedicated to reshaping government. One of them might be able to take up where Reagan left off. But they need a success on the state level to run on.

In the meantime we need to settle for the most electable candidate to prevent the Obama administration from permanently messing up the economy.

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