David Frum writes the following in the current National Review (subscription required):
The conservatism we know evolved in the 1970s to meet a very specific set of dangers and challenges: inflation, slow growth, energy shortages, unemployment, rising welfare dependency. In every one of those problems, big government was the direct and immediate culprit. Roll back government, and you solved the problem.
Government is implicated in many of today’s top domestic concerns as well. You can trace health-care inflation in part to perverse tax incentives that squelch competition. You can trace the rise in income inequality in part to the failure to enforce immigration laws. But the connection between big government and today’s most pressing problems is not as close or as pressing as it was 27 years ago. So, unsurprisingly, the anti-big-government message does not mobilize the public the way it once did.
Of course, we can keep repeating our old lines all the same, just the way Tip O’Neill kept exhorting the American middle class to show more gratitude to the New Deal. But politicians who talk that way soon sound old, tired, and cranky. I wish somebody at the recent GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library had said: “Ronald Reagan was a great leader and a great president because he addressed the problems of his time. But we have very different problems — and we need very different answers. Here are mine.”
But if one of the candidates had said that, would Republicans have hearkened? Or would we have said: The path to the nomination will be crossed by the candidate who does the best job of ticking the boxes of a coalition that probably now spans no more than 30 percent of the electorate?
Incidentally, I think he is exactly right. Look, you won’t find a bigger admirer of President Reagan than yours truly. But it is utterly inane for us to be trying to pick our next president based on who can proclaim his love for the Gipper the loudest and mirror his policy positions most closely. Instead, as Frum points out, we need someone who will apply the principles of conservatism to today’s problems–not those of the Carter Administration.
And when you look beyond platitudes, it’s clear that some of the candidates have sort of “innovated” Reagan-era conservatism. Mayor Giuliani, for instance, has stripped out the part of it that relates to being pro-life (and you could argue that his willingness to publicly fund abortion strips out some of the fiscal conservatism as well). Senator McCain’s “maverick” tendencies are well known, and in many cases, Senator Thompson–McCain’s national co-chairman in 2000–has shared them. See campaign finance “reform,” for example–that’s why CNN wrote in 1999 that “Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, and McCain are both independent minded senators who have bucked their party, most notably on the issue of campaign finance reform.”
I put “innovated” in quotes, though, because these examples aren’t really innovations. They’re not adapations of conservative thought to a new era; they are surrenders on key issues–the protection of all human life and the guarantee of freedom of speech.
By contrast, there’s another candidate who has shown a strong ability to spearhead innovation and manage big enterprises well in the private sector, is taking the lead in bringing conservative principles of national security to bear on Iran, and was able to bring those same principles to bear on domestic issues in Massachusetts, of all places. Oh, and did I mention that he’s running as an innovator?