More often than I care to admit, I get e-mails from well-meaning evangelicals proclaiming their unshaking opposition to voting for anyone who is not an orthodox (lowercase “o”) Christian. I now have a standard reply: “Would you have refused to vote for Thomas Jefferson?”
That’s an allusion, of course, to the plain and simple fact that the writer of the Declaration of Independence was anything but an orthodox Christian. The same, if you read your history book, applies to a good number of his fellow Founding Fathers. Yet they somehow managed to establish a nation that all of us think is based on Judeo-Christian values. History shows, then, that it’s a mistake to assert that we must only vote for candidates who agree with our theology or belong to our church–and I shudder to think of where we’d be today if our forefathers were in 1776 as confused as we are today on this point.
But that’s not the only lesson we conservatives have apparently failed to learn from history. Many media accounts of the 2008 presidential race–most recently Jonathan Martin’s new piece on Iowa–have led me to believe that our understanding of the facts of 1776 doesn’t get any better when you fast forward 200 years. That is, we’re terribly confused about the recent past, too.
If you don’t believe me, read this from Martin’s account of his most recent trip to Des Moines:
“Wide open” was the preferred phrase used by Iowa Republicans at the party’s Lincoln Day Dinner on Saturday to describe the party’s presidential field.
But while Rep. Tom Latham, Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Laudner and Polk County Republican Chairman Ted Sporer all used those two words, the audience reaction to the nine candidates who made their case to the party faithful was best captured by four others: “none of the above.”
The tepid response of the 1,000 Iowa Republicans in attendance at the party’s annual fundraiser and subsequent discussions with state party activists makes clear that the first-in-the-nation state mirrors the rest of the country in its uncertainty about the GOP’s White House hopefuls, particularly those in the top tier.
“I just get a sense that nobody’s real happy,” said Brian Johnson, a Des Moines Republican and statehouse lobbyist. “Nobody’s taking off.”
“People are looking for something,” agreed Mark Lundberg, chairman of the Sioux County Republican Party. “They’re waiting for the next Ronald Reagan.”
It gets worse:
“There is a desire to have more choices,” was how Sporer, the Polk County GOP chief, assessed the unsettled nature of the field. “There is no pure conservative in the Reagan model.“
People who talk this way, I really think, should brush up on their history. Or at least that’s the lesson I’m drawing from the book I’m reading right now–Governor Reagan, Lou Cannon’s masterful account of Reagan’s rise to power, as he puts it. It’s no left-wing screed, in case you’re wondering–on the back, George Will and Michael Barone praise it, the latter calling it “the definitive Reagan biography.”
Reading it has driven home to me the differences between today and 1968–when, if you need a refresher, the United States was embroiled in an unpopular foreign war and the Republican Party had recently been dealt a harsh electoral rebuke, with its partisans confused and despondent. That would be the same 1968 when conservatives begged then-Governor Reagan to join the presidential race–against, interestingly, Gov. George Romney of Michigan and then, after he flamed out, former Vice President Richard Nixon. That would also be one year after Governor Reagan signed a $1 billion tax increase ($5 billion in 2003 dollars, Cannon says) and what later became known as the country’s most liberal abortion law.
That’s what Reagan did in his first year in office. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances: The Democrat he defeated in 1966, incumbent Gov. Pat Brown, had cooked the books and left him with a massive deficit. And he was deeply conflicted on the abortion bill. But nonetheless–is that what anybody would call “pure conservatism,” to use the phrase of our friend from Iowa?
No, it isn’t. But conservative primary voters certainly didn’t hold it against him, then or in 1976, when he nearly toppled President Ford at the GOP convention. And by the way, 1976 happened to be six years after he nominated a chief justice–Donald R. Wright–of the California Supreme Court who wrote an opinion striking down capital punishment.
Of course, I’m not questioning the idea that Ronald Reagan was a conservative. He was, and he was a great man besides–that’s why I have two portraits and a bust of him in my office. (And, umm, why I spend my spare time reading books about his governorship.) He also went on to win many conservative victories during his governorship. But he was no angel. He was not perfect. He was no “pure conservative.” There is no such thing–particularly in elected office, which by its very nature necessitates compromises and pragmatism. And he wasn’t unchanging, either. Let it not be forgotten that the first Republican presidential candidate Reagan publicly supported was Nixon in 1960–just six years before he was elected governor–and that he spent much of his prior life as a proud New Deal Democrat.
Forgive me for being overly pessimistic, but it strikes me that in today’s environment–and at that dinner in Iowa the other night–Reagan would not be given the hero’s welcome he got from conservatives in 1968, 1976, and 1980. Those conservatives who continue to pine for “the next Reagan” should study more deeply the truth about the man himself. He would be the first to point out that he wasn’t perfect. Looking for a presidential candidate who is, rather than one who is an articulate and sincere conservative, is mere folly.
And, of course, you all know who we think the articulate and sincere conservative in the ’08 hunt is. You know, the one who fought and won for social conservatives in the most left-wing state in the union and is always talking about the menace posed by jihadists?
UPDATE: Some of the language in this post was originally too harsh, and I have amended it accordingly.