Reagan nostalgia is often overdone, and I’ve been at the forefront in criticizing Republicans who claim to be “Reagan Republicans” but who don’t bother to study the man carefully enough to understand the skill and practice involved in his success. Many lazy Republican pols seem to think it sufficient just to invoke his name.
On the other hand, Reagan was ahead of his time on so many issues, and among them was how to think about the political world when the GOP is at low ebb. His 1977 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “A New Republican Party,” has to rank as one of his classics, and had Mitt Romney read and absorbed it, he might have squeaked by. It reads as fresh and relevant today as it did when he gave it. (By the way, this is one of Reagan’s speeches that he wrote largely himself.) The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a few relevant samples:
Those polls confirm that most Americans are basically conservative in their outlook. But once we have said this, we conservatives have not solved our problems, we have merely stated them clearly. Yes, conservatism can and does mean different things to those who call themselves conservatives.
You know, as I do, that most commentators make a distinction between [what] they call “social” conservatism and “economic” conservatism. The so-called social issues — law and order, abortion, busing, quota systems — are usually associated with blue-collar, ethnic and religious groups themselves traditionally associated with the Democratic Party. The economic issues — inflation, deficit spending and big government — are usually associated with Republican Party members and independents who concentrate their attention on economic matters.
Now I am willing to accept this view of two major kinds of conservatism — or, better still, two different conservative constituencies. But at the same time let me say that the old lines that once clearly divided these two kinds of conservatism are disappearing.
In fact, the time has come to see if it is possible to present a program of action based on political principle that can attract those interested in the so-called “social” issues and those interested in “economic” issues. In short, isn’t it possible to combine the two major segments of contemporary American conservatism into one politically effective whole?
I believe the answer is: Yes, it is possible to create a political entity that will reflect the views of the great, hitherto [unacknowledged], conservative majority. . .
This will mean compromise. But not a compromise of basic principle. What will emerge will be something new: something open and vital and dynamic, something the great conservative majority will recognize as its own, because at the heart of this undertaking is principled politics. . .
Let us lay to rest, once and for all, the myth of a small group of ideological purists trying to capture a majority. Replace it with the reality of a majority trying to assert its rights against the tyranny of powerful academics, fashionable left-revolutionaries, some economic illiterates who happen to hold elective office and the social engineers who dominate the dialogue and set the format in political and social affairs. If there is any ideological fanaticism in American political life, it is to be found among the enemies of freedom on the left or right — those who would sacrifice principle to theory, those who worship only the god of political, social and economic abstractions, ignoring the realities of everyday life. They are not conservatives.
Our first job is to get this message across to those who share most of our principles. If we allow ourselves to be portrayed as ideological shock troops without correcting this error we are doing ourselves and our cause a disservice. Wherever and whenever we can, we should gently but firmly correct our political and media friends who have been perpetuating the myth of conservatism as a narrow ideology. Whatever the word may have meant in the past, today conservatism means principles evolving from experience and a belief in change when necessary, but not just for the sake of change.
And how about tattooing this paragraph on every staffer at the RNC:
Our candidates must be willing to communicate with every level of society, because the principles we espouse are universal and cut across traditional lines. In every Congressional district there should be a search made for young men and women who share these principles and they should be brought into positions of leadership in the local Republican Party groups. We can find attractive, articulate candidates if we look, and when we find them, we will begin to change the sorry state of affairs that has led to a Democratic-controlled Congress for more than 40 years. I need not remind you that you can have the soundest principles in the world, but if you don’t have candidates who can communicate those principles, candidates who are articulate as well as principled, you are going to lose election after election. I refuse to believe that the good Lord divided this world into Republicans who defend basic values and Democrats who win elections. We have to find tough, bright young men and women who are sick and tired of cliches and the pomposity and the mind-numbing economic idiocy of the liberals in Washington.
As the saying goes, read the whole thing.