Tag Archives: GOP

Reagan and Rand

It is easy to forget that Ronald Reagan was a radical. He was guided by conviction rather than consensus. Reagan is remembered for revitalizing the economy and for his bold determination against the Soviet Union, while less is said of his intellectual and philosophical foundations. Free markets, the moral supremacy of capitalism to socialism and an insistence that the citizen is above the state; these ancient principles had been steadily traduced over time by those who believed them anathema to egalitarianism. They were radical principles for their time because in order to reverse the postwar drift towards democratic socialism, radical change was needed.

In many respects, the modern conservative revolution was a visceral backlash to the systematic undermining of the American ideal. The “postwar consensus” that reigned in the western world until 1979 centered around managed economies and massive state subsidization. Democratic capitalism had only served to unleash dangerous elements of nationalism and profit-seeking which inevitably culminated in disastrous war. This idea was so prevalent among elites that the thought of a different way never really emerged. In Britain and the Unites States, this consensus led to stagnation, inflation, and loss of confidence. A neutral observer would have been hard pressed to conclude during the seventies that the Soviet Union was destined for defeat.

The left reacted to the Reagan agenda with horror because they understood that it was different from prior Republican agendas. Unlike his predecessors, Reagan sought to weaken progressive government creations such as the punitive income tax rate and activist regulation. His proposal to freeze domestic discretionary spending went against the very fiber of bureaucratic being. “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” was an indictment of the administrative state, and as a result the left were painfully aware that the Reagan agenda was an assault on decades of progressive achievement.

Time has dampened the decibels of Reagan outrage and we are now far enough removed from the eighties that defiance has been replaced by begrudging acceptance. Outside of Bernie Sanders, no one in the Democratic Party is clamoring for a return to the seventies and its high inflation, gas shortages, price controls and general malaise. No one on the left openly complains about the west’s triumph in the cold war or makes nuclear weapons a cri de coeur. “Reagan Democrats” has no modern corollary with the right, much as our media would like to rewrite history to include a corollary in the form of Clinton or Obama Republicans. But they don’t exist. Naysayers like Paul Krugman continue to distort the legacy, but for the most part the left has abandoned its Reagan defamation project and settles now for another narrative besides Reagan the Failure. Now it is Reagan the Moderate.

It is an irresistible trolling device for partisans out to make conservatives squirm. Saying “Reagan couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican Party” because of the extremism of the Tea Party is guaranteed to gall the right, not because it is an uncomfortable truth difficult to square with Reagan mythology but because it is a lie. When Reagan challenged incumbent Gerald Ford in the 1976 GOP primary, the establishment freak-out was immense. Reagan was the standard-bearer for the Goldwater remnant, that leftover segment of stubborn holdouts to mid-century collectivism that balked at every bipartisan expansion of government. Needless to say, Goldwater conservatism did not enjoy establishment cache. It did not play well in 1964 – this ad might have had something to do with it – but neither did defeat signal its doom. Reagan’s bold ruffling of establishment feathers in ’76 likewise did not achieve overnight success, but it planted an ideological flag in the ground. By the time he reached the Oval Office Reagan’s conservative agenda finally proved accessible thanks to the tumult of the seventies amounting to one long primal scream for a different course. The electorate’s embrace of Reagan’s message was not a product of the candidate moderating his positions or of “moving to the center” but an explicit endorsement of the radical experiment on offer.

Rand Paul’s agenda for 2016 is as radical as Reagan’s in 1980. It commits to eliminating elements of the Washington Leviathan; not curbing, not managing more efficiently, not making leaner at the margins, but eliminating. The mission is to make parts of the administrative state go the way of the parrot. Among those agencies that will cease to be in a Rand Paul administration are the Departments of Education, Commerce and Energy. Expect the IRS, EPA and Departments of Labor, Agriculture and Interior to do with smaller budgets and fewer workers. Beyond the paring of departments and bureaucracy, Paul proposes a 14.5% flat tax with only a couple deductions as well as elimination of the payroll tax. He aims to “turbocharge the economy” by lowering the tax burdens for all while ending crony privilege and special interest prominence. Paul is not a perfect embodiment of the free market ideal, but neither was Reagan. However, each represents the vanguard of conservative rebellion at their respective times and speaks on behalf of intellectual and grass roots conservatives. Ultimately, what makes Rand the modern version of Reagan is the moral imperative threaded through his government critique.

Nowhere is this moral clarity more on display than in Paul’s focused drive to rehabilitate the Bill of Rights in popular Americana. Libertarians hold the founding principles particularly dear for their discrete, almost obsessive concern over the separation of powers. Far from the greedy landed gentry of progressive fever dreams, the founders were consumed by questions of unchecked authority. The point of the constitutional project was to limit the powers of the state. It was not to proscribe what freedoms Americans could enjoy at the mercy of the state. The ninth amendment to the Bill of Rights is an explicit reminder that American freedoms extend beyond that list of prohibitions on government action and intrusion. From this philosophical tradition do libertarian-minded conservatives like Paul derive their convictions and through this lens should Paul’s efforts at unconventional outreach be judged. Despite being a target for attack from both sides, there can be no doubt that on matters from criminal justice to the regulatory state to surveillance to education, Rand Paul is sincere. No candidate in recent memory has shined such a focused spotlight on the Bill of Rights, and even in this cynical age the reception he gets when addressing fundamental nonpartisan American freedoms shows the sustainability of constitutionalism. Liberal Joe Klein is impressed enough by Paul to note admiringly that “by the time his 15-minute stump speech is over, he has delivered a tutorial about the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth and 10th amendments to the Constitution.”

True convictions are not welcome in Washington, where elites hew to the dubious wisdom of Lord Keynes: in the long run we’re all dead. While Keynes’ pithy comment was in regard to his economic theory, it applies just as well to an establishment ethos which elevates short term considerations of lobbyists and interest groups while ignoring real exigencies such as debt and slow growth. Call it the normalcy bias; the tendency to shrug off systemic long run concerns afflicts establishments on both sides and perpetuates a status quo beneficial only to the connected.

Reagan is beloved by conservatives because he fought against this bias and won. But it was no cakewalk and, as Jeffrey Lord wrote in 2010, he faced as much opposition from his own party as from the left. “They didn’t like him. To be more precise, they thought him an extremist, un-electable, an ultra-right wing nut, dumb, ignorant and, more to the point, not one of their crowd. One out of six was absolutely correct. Ronald Reagan was not one of their crowd. Ever.” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley decided to work for the RNC in 1982 at the behest of Reagan allies concerned that the organization was dominated by George H.W. Bush loyalists, the same cohort that looks askance at Rand Paul today. Reagan’s agenda was so unsettling to the guardians of the status quo that Beltway Republican reaction to Reagan popularity was similar to Paulene Kael’s vexation that Reagan could win when she “did not know a single person who voted for him.” By going full speed ahead with his agenda and in the process convincing large swaths of the public on the merits, Reagan led a revolution. By the ’84 election there was little doubt his agenda had been a smashing success.

In times of economic uncertainty restless citizens tend to forego tribal passions and seek brave, articulate “political athletes” to rouse the country from its doldrums. In his failed bid for the White House Goldwater paved the way for radical conservative solutions the country was not yet ready to embrace. Reagan’s triumph built on the Goldwater gambit and thus upended the existing order for close to thirty years. The conservative rabble had finally heisted the keys to the kingdom from the establishment squishes, who remained in the shadows of the Reagan Revolution quietly dismayed by the sudden loss of power and prestige. Given the longevity of cabinet officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, Reaganites who became establishment, it is understandable that conservatives and libertarians would accuse the Bush presidencies of squandering the Reagan era. Today’s Tea Party-establishment contretemps is not a new phenomenon, but what is remarkable is the degree to which the Bush family has stood at the vanguard of establishment Republicanism since the seventies, usually in mild to open defiance of the Reagan ethos. No one understands this better than Rand Paul.

Paul attended the GOP convention as a thirteen year old in ’76 when the rancor over Reagan challenging an incumbent was at its peak. Sitting with his father in the Texas Reagan delegation, Paul witnessed first hand how passionately party bigwigs worked against the principled conservative in the race. It showed him that the powers that be on his own side were not exactly keen on returning to a focused free market constitutionalism. Is it any wonder then that Paul seems to relish taking on the same forces today that bedeviled the likes of Goldwater and Reagan in the past?

Rand Paul will not be alone in claiming Reagan lineage during the primary, but there is no candidate who better wears the label of principled rebel outsider. Like Reagan, Rand has establishment and partisan forces arrayed against him, left and right. Like Reagan, Rand has a passionate and growing following inspired by classical liberal principles and an appreciation for market supremacy over the distorting whims of the state. Like Reagan, Rand understands that not every fight is our fight, but you better believe we will retain the world’s strongest defense in perpetuity. Above all, Rand most resembles Reagan because he approaches the problems of the day with the most clear-eyed and radical prescriptions for our afflicted republic. Cronies and bureaucrats who are comfortable with the system the way it is will screech and bawl over Rand’s proposals just as they did Reagan’s. Like Reagan, Rand is best equipped to make an impassioned, articulate, inspiring case that persuades the electorate.

If conservatives wish to do more than just talk about the perils of the administrative state, the runaway executive under both parties and the costs of big government to human ingenuity and dignity, they need to move beyond reminiscing about Reagan and go ahead and nominate the guy who is the closest incarnation. If Republicans wish to emulate Reagan boldness in order to meaningfully win again, they should look to Rand Paul.

 

 

Rand and The Establishment

I imagine quite the discussion going on at the RNC and within the broader establishment organs of the party right now regarding Rand Paul. He has just spent a full year demonstrating his promise in communities not known for voting Republican, while fending off vicious attacks from both left and right over everything from his thoughts on certain legislation from 1964 to charges of an isolationist foreign policy to his supposed support for “amnesty” (the latter claim is farcical, but popular in the comments of many a conservative publication). And he has maintained his popularity and appeal throughout, capitalizing on the mainstream media’s utter confusion about what to make of him, leading to their giving him all the more free publicity.

He essentially checks all the key boxes the party brass laid out in the 2012 autopsy as far as reaching out to new voters and expanding the tent for the GOP. In May, Paul polled 29% support among Kentucky blacks in a hypothetical 2016 matchup with Hillary Clinton. His outreach is working. If the GOP nominee in 2016 garnered even 19% of the national black vote, there would not be a bigger story in America. The blight of our urban cities and the fact that national democrats have cynically perpetuated poverty and misery for millions by cultivating victimization and contempt in the black community is an enduring national disgrace, and many blacks seem open to a message of just… something, anything different. Rand has been speaking to that in earnest for a whole year. 19% could be a low estimate of the breakthrough he could have with black voters.

And the same script applies to the youth vote, only double. Rand could easily win half the nation’s millennials, partly on the strength of his message and appeal, but also because they have been mugged by progressive economic reality and are ready to hear more about uber and less about the minimum wage.

The RNC and the big money donors have to see this. And yet, there is the obvious tension regarding foreign policy, which I think is overblown and based on a caricature of who Paul is, but nevertheless is grounded in principle and is a legitimate ongoing debate. But I really wonder what many donors and establishment types are smoking when they consider how Bush or Christie or Romney or Walker or even Rubio could make a serious dent in all these voting communities who have been giving Republicans the back of the hand of late. It really can only be Paul or Cruz if you want to be bold and grow the party through a concentration on liberty and reducing government’s imprint. They are really only the ones who both get it and can articulate “it.” I have my doubts that Cruz can expand the tent as much as Rand and I suspect he would ultimately lose, though I will not protest if he is the Republican nominee because at the very least he would offer the clearest of choices and is capable of eloquently making the case for free market capitalism and deregulation.

In the end, Cruz would be a great choice but Paul is the best choice.

And for all the anti-Rand sentiment that exists on our side, I do wonder why I never really hear anyone address how else to grow the party and make the brand more attractive to the young and marginalized who have been so dis-served by the left? Who else has a plan besides Paul? The establishment needs to recognize that it can’t implement its pet policies – whether on foreign policy or immigration or tax reform – without first securing victory. And if we know one thing about politicians of every shade and stripe, winning elections is the goal, as that is the business they’ve chosen. Given this simple reality and the fact that establishment consensus rests on another simple reality that says Republicans must reach out to non-traditional constituencies if they want to win nationally again, it seems obvious that Rand Paul and the establishment (particularly the foreign policy establishment) should declare detente and act together to leverage some of Paul’s outreach into a lasting presence with new voters. That cooperation depends on the establishment’s willingness to accept that the new voters Rand is courting are attracted to him because of his libertarian outlook on many issues. “Libertarian” still scares the pants off of significant swathes of the GOP, but thankfully libertarianism is trending in the right direction in the party. Rand has already demonstrated that he can be a team player and help elect establishment Republicans. In return, the Republican party impresarios need to acknowledge Paul’s inspiring effort to conduct outreach and resolve to see him, finally, as an ally rather than an enemy.

David and Goliath

I have not yet read Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, but I have read Ben Domenech’s outstanding piece in The Federalist on the application of the David and Goliath trope to our modern politics, as well as Daniel Hannan’s marvelous new tome on the uniquely British origins of constitutional liberty, and I believe they share a common and important insight about man’s capacity to resist arbitrary rule, in the same sense that underdogs like David are compelled to resistance against all kinds of Goliaths.

Domenech taps into one of Hannan’s central points about the American Revolution: that the revolutionaries did not see themselves as progressives or even radicals, but as conservatives bent on restoring their rights as free-born Englishmen. To the extent the patriots viewed themselves as revolutionaries at all, Hannan explains, it was in pursuit of a 360 degree turn of the wheel, back to their Anglo-Saxon roots when traditions of representative assembly carried over from their Germanic tribal days blended with budding conceptions of personal autonomy, as well as a preference for local adjudication based on precedent over abstract principle, known as the “common law.” After the Norman conquest however, much of this tradition was wiped out or sent underground as the continental invaders imposed feudalism and the Divine Right of Kings on the land; this would be the galvanizing force of English rebel libertarians for five hundred years until at last with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 they were able to “cast off the Norman yoke” and reassert the primacy of their natural rights.

Our own founders were interested in a similar restoration of their rights when they told King George III to shove it. But these were not men rebelling against a foreign power, rather they saw themselves as any colonial would have at the time, whether patriot or loyalist: as Englishmen. Our “revolutionaries who took up arms against the British weren’t just rejecting a form of political leadership, disemboweling the past in order to start a new regime (as the French did). They were seeking to claim back their old rights from nearly a century earlier.” And this is where Domenech draws a parallel between Gladwell’s advocacy for underdogs and our present conservative political stalemate between the Establishment and the Tea Party, “which is carrying on the traditions of the American Revolution, in ways they may not even recognize.”

It is not difficult to intuit why underdogs enjoy rich histories in both fact and apocrypha. Every child loves a story about a small band of heroic warriors who triumphed against long odds, and it usually doesn’t matter if the tale is true or enhanced through mythological retelling, like the difference between the 1980 US hockey defeat of the USSR and the legend of Sparta’s 300. What matters is the romantic allure of the underdog prevailing simply because his was the just cause, his heart the pure. But can the same exaltation of the underdog be applied to intra-partisan politcal arguments over tactics? The David and Goliath parable seems only relevant to tales of combat and competition, but do rhetorical skirmishes between the Tea Party and the Establishment deserve the same juxtaposition? Domenech thinks so:

For those intellectuals on the right equipped with some insight, they recognize that the thread of populism which runs through Bunker Hill and The Alamo is an ally, not a foe. But for those who are prisoners to their narrow frame of the world, misunderstanding this long-running American tradition has turned into dripping condescension of the populist right. They decry the Tea Party and its new institutions as a kabuki dance performed for filthy luchre from ill-mannered hicks and racists… not realizing that it is in the nature of populism, particularly conservative populism, to see the structures of power more clearly for what they are, as opposed to what they claim to be.

Just as the aristocracy of the day bought the Tories with the benefits of privilege, so today the existing Goliaths guard the status of the self-styled elite. Their approach to government not only protects elite status but also creates it, typically without merit – paired with the authoritarian technocrats’ belief that they know best, and have the right to make that best a reality. It’s why such elitism is the one thing they are conservative about – the modern aristocracy bequeaths titles of nobility for surviving the attacks of the hicks, protecting its own, and attempting to control the agenda in the same way they did in pre-revolutionary times. But the more Goliath ignores, insults, and fights David, the stronger he becomes.

The problem is that these Goliaths are slow and clumsy, and that, equipped with the technology-driven power of collaboration and the institutional wherewithal to match the established fundraisers, the Davids have more than enough smooth stones in hand to do what they came to do. The superior force on which the giants’ success depended grows ever less impressive with each passing election cycle. And the rebels are at the gate.”

“Elites” is a pejorative more generally used to describe paternalist liberals and their effete coastal constituencies, but here it accurately characterizes the temperament of entrenched Republicans in Washington as well. It’s become almost cliche for populist conservatives to accuse Establishment conservatives merely of “protecting the status quo,” but often cliches become cliches because they are true. There is a certain arrogance among many Republican elder statesmen in their frustration and occasional contempt for the new flock of conservative populists in the Capitol. And even if Establishment concerns about tactical politicking are sometimes warranted, they too often forget what the insurgents represent: the underdogs.

There is profound confusion on left and right about the Tea Party’s staying power as a national force in politics. The left derides it as an “astroturf” conspiracy cooked up in the devious halls of Koch Bros., Inc. The right haughtily insists that without Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, all would be well in today’s GOP-controlled Senate and the federal government would not have been “disastrously” shut down, thereby halting for a whole two weeks a small amount of non-mandatory operations. But the truth is that the Tea Party is stronger and more viable than ever because it is a diffuse movement of principles and ideas rather than an organized entity with uniform leadership and planning. Quoting Van Jones at a Netroots meeting of progressive minds in 2011, Matt Kibbe addresses Jones’ exasperation at how the Tea Party “talk rugged individualist, but they act collectively” by explaining:

“He and his colleagues don’t seem to understand that communities can’t exist without respect for individual freedom. They can’t imagine how it is that millions of people located in disparate places with unique knowledge of their communities and circumstances can voluntarily cooperate and coordinate, creating something far greater and more valuable than any one individual could have done alone.”

It is understandable why a former communist Occupy Wall Street cheerleader would express confusion and deem “ironic” that a group of passionate individualists should be able to achieve political ends collectively. He simply doesn’t appreciate the power or the validity of the principles that guide them. But for the staid Goliaths of the GOP to similarly disregard and disrespect the diffuse coalition of focused and committed Davids in their own ranks explains why there is a “civil war” in the Republican Party today. It is never wise to discount the underdogs, especially those named after this celebrated example from our own history. What is the story of the American Revolution if not one of underdog triumph?