The day after the Iowa caucuses, where Mitt Romney finished a disappointing second and Fred Thompson a distant third, I wrote that the real loser on the Republican side was mainstream, Reaganite conservatism. After Romney took another “silver medal” in New Hampshire, and Thompson was invisible there, others began building a more general narrative — the demise, or at least the serious fraying, of the Reagan coalition. If Romney and Thompson lose this week in Michigan and South Carolina, respectively, this “weakness of the Reagan coalition” narrative will become the conventional wisdom.
How valid would this wisdom be? The answer depends on whether there are persuasive alternative explanations for the lack of success (so far) of Romney and Thompson. The most obvious alternative explanation is to blame Romney and Thompson. Although Romney currently embraces all three major aspects of Reaganism — supply side economics/small government; social conservatism; and proactive, hawkish foreign policy — this has only been the case for a few years. And while Thompson has been consistent on these matters for a much longer period, he entered the campaign late and (according to many) without sufficient vigor. Only the rejection of a consistent, hard-charging Reaganite candidate would permit the firm conclusion that the party has turned its back on traditional Reaganism.
Yet, Romney and Thompson are hardly the only flawed candidates in the race. And the willingness of Mike Huckabee to thumb his nose (and even taunt) supply-siders; the fact that a candidate who rejected conservative orthodoxy on abortion could emerge, even for a time, as the frontrunner; and the ability of John McCain to survive and then prosper despite his many heresies, all suggest that there’s more going on here than just the imperfections of the vessels of Reaganism.
Here, we come to the second alternative explanation, which I’ll call “fraying light.” In this account, the problem is not so much that the three prongs of the Reagan coalition have lost their collective appeal, but rather that each faction within the coalition wishes to take the driver’s seat. Thus, to take one example, most social conservatives probably are still fine with small government and hawkish foreign policy, but they want their social agenda to be primary. They therefore favor a candidate they know will put their agenda first, even though that candidate may not be as solid as others when it comes to economic and foreign policy. This is a normal reaction when a coalition has held power for a sustained period. Coalition members never get the attention they feel they deserve. The longer they experience what they perceive to be neglect, the less inclined they are to “play ball.”
In this account, the fraying this year is a temporary condition driven by the political cycle, rather than a long-term phenomenon caused by inherent weakness. If the Republicans lose in November, sooner or later the concept of coalition will regain its appeal and, depending of course on events, the Reagan coalition is likely to be viewed as the most promising one.
Beyond the matter of Republican willingness to coalesce around a traditional mainstream conservative is the question of the viability of such a candidate in the general election. That’s beyond the scope of this post. However, my sense is that, while electing a Romney or a Thompson this year would be difficult, these difficulties again have more to do with the candidates themselves, and more importantly with the specific environment of this election, than with any lack of appeal inherent in Reaganism.
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