As I watched the Republican debate two nights ago, I could not help but ask myself two questions. First, why was silver fox moderator Anderson Cooper relegating Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, both of them tenured politicians with interesting ideas, to John McCain and Mitt Romney’s table scraps? Secondly, why was a deceased ex-president – Ronald Reagan – shaping the ebb and flow of the debate?
The answer to the first question is simple. Romney and McCain are the front-runners, and as such fielded the lion’s share of relevant questions. Their opinions simply matter more to the media at this juncture, a reality which Huckabee indirectly yet rightly voiced his dissatisfaction with at one point.
I found answering my second question more taxing – pun intended. Save for the fact the venue in which the debate was held is named after him, why so many damned questions about Reagan? Peppered throughout the debate were prompts akin to “What would Reagan think of (insert GOP candidate name or policy here)?” or “Why do you venerate Reagan?” As I listened to the candidate’s answers to these questions I began to realize why Ronald Reagan had posthumously re-entered the political arena here in 2008.
In the midst of the Republican primaries, growing disillusionment with the Bush doctrine within GOP circles has given way to the manifestation of an ideological vacuum. The current crop of candidates have been made to distance themselves – albeit not completely, for their complicity in advancing Bush’s agenda prevents them from doing so – from the Bush administration’s failed neo-conservative policies. The party itself has had to reinvent its ideology to increase republicans’ chances come November. The GOP’s solution, as evidenced by last night’s debate, has been to invoke the father of modern American conservatism, Ronald Reagan himself. But is this a prudent paradigm shift for the GOP?
Reagan has long been a venerated figure in many circles. His undoubted charisma and charm endeared him to Democrats and Republicans alike. However, I would argue this charisma helped construct the myth of Ronald Reagan as an unqualified success. I say a myth because I ardently refute many Republican claims toward Reagan’s alleged accomplishments. Reagan did not end the Cold War, for instance – the Soviet Union imploded upon itself. The weight of revisionist-communist dogma and a stagnant, heavy industry based economy were too much for Soviets to bear. Reagan’s other, more surreptitious foreign policy endeavor – the Iran-Contra Affair – served to perpetuate the bloody Iran and Iraq war in order to fund another bloody war in Latin America. “Reaganomics” fell on its ass. Apparently the upper economic strata of Americans who enjoyed extensive tax cuts under Reagan mopped up every penny at their disposal, leaving none to “trickle down.” The inefficacy of the trickle down theory in practice, coupled with the cessation of social spending, only served to widen the poverty gap.
So it is Reagan’s charisma, then, which evokes such fond thoughts of his tenure and philosophy as president. It is this very charisma from which even Barack Obama has recently drawn inspiration. Although Obama stops well short of praising Reagan’s policy, perhaps the GOP should do the same. Present-day Republicans should instead look to progressive Republicans like the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt and prophetic Dwight D. Eisenhower for ideological inspiration.