Wes Vernon
January 7, 2008
Waiting for the next Reagan? Forget it
Populism vs. conservatism
By Wes Vernon

Many conservatives are disheartened by the choices they perceive in the lineup of Republican presidential candidates.

Let's start off with acceptance of the fact that the times and circumstances are different from 1980 when we elected Ronald Reagan.

Americans sent Ronald Reagan to the White House because they hungered for a halt to the steady groveling and surrender to the Soviet Union.

Americans sent Ronald Reagan to the White House because they hungered for a halt to the "misery index" trio of the doubles: double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment, and double-digit interest rates.

Americans sent Ronald Reagan to the White House because they hungered for a halt to the sixties-induced slide toward a coarsening of the culture.

Reagan unique

Some of those issues have rebounded only in different forms. The groveling and surrendering, for example, apply not to the George W. Bush White House, but certainly to the current congressional leadership, and the problem is no longer the Soviet empire, but Islamofascisim.

The economic "misery index" is no more, though the media always at the ready to tell us what we think inform us that we are fearful that it might again rear its ugly head.

Perfect candidate?

We are not about to nominate a "perfect" candidate. No such person exists in an imperfect humanity.

And let's be honest about this point. Reagan as great as he was was not "perfect." Yes, his anti-abortion outlook was a factor in his nominating to the judiciary those who would interpret the Constitution on the basis of what the document actually says, rather than what they personally wish it would say as in Roe v. Wade. But recall that, as governor of California, Reagan signed into law some of the harshest pieces of legislation dealing with the unborn something to remember when considering Mitt Romney's "flip-flop" on that issue.

"Family values" as in divorce and distance from one's children? Recall that for some years, at least three of Reagan's four children (products of both of his marriages plus one adoption) were estranged from their father at one time or another, albeit for different reasons something to remember when Rudy Giuliani goes to voters with the personal baggage of three marriages and children who want nothing to do with him.

There are those conservatives who believe to this day that Reagan did not veto enough spending bills and thereby allowed Congress to get away with its customary gallop toward Pork Heaven. In retrospect, I'm inclined to give him a pass on the spending issue, considering that unknown to most of us then the Gipper was up to his ears in bringing down the Soviet Union. Even a president can successfully fight just so many major battles at one and the same time.

Can we all agree that a Reagan will appear just once in most lifetimes, and that even they will not be "99 & 44/100 percent pure," as the old ad used to say?

Yes, the Gipper is gone, and we need to "get over it." But conservatism? Those principles are bedrock from the Founding Fathers to the 21st Century and I dare say, beyond.

So what should we expect in a candidate?

Some conservatives see the Mike Huckabee victory in the Iowa GOP caucuses as an indication that Americans are bothered (rightly or wrongly) by what lies ahead in the economic realm and what that means to their well-being.

Do you think Huckabee is a conservative? Ah, but what about his tax increases while governor of Arkansas, to say nothing of his acts on immigration matters and his pardoning of hardened criminals who then proceeded to do more violent criminal acts. But has Huckabee "tapped into" the Reagan Democrats or the increasingly blue-collar Republican Party? We may be doing OK right now, but the talk of the housing slump and stratosphere-reaching gas prices has voters worried, and Huckabee a populist politician if ever there was one has picked up the ball and run with it.

Rush Limbaugh thinks the economic climate of "Woe is me" (my wording, not his) is largely driven by the media, which use it as a weapon to bash President Bush, whom they hate with a royal passion. 96 percent of Americans, Rush reminds us, are paying their mortgages on time.


On his Friday radio show, Limbaugh went on one of the most emotional and powerful monologues of his nearly 20-year-long conversation with Middle America. His angst was clearly traceable to deep disappointment over the Huckabee electoral bull's-eye in Iowa; not so much over Huckabee himself as a person, but because the outcome suggested a Republican voter tendency to confuse populism with conservatism, and that conservatives are starting to ape liberals who get up every morning with nothing but pessimism. Rush's long, long lament could easily have been prompted by (among other things) Mike Huckabee's Edwards-like rhetoric against big corporations. Republicans who have complained in the past that President Bush and congressional GOP leaders are not conservative enough now want to turn their problems over to government, Rush complained.

Populism, as defined by America's leading radio host "is a political figure telling you whatever he thinks you want to hear." He added, "Folks, it just scares me, because this is how charlatans get elected."

Mike Huckabee and John McCain, according to Limbaugh, "are not consistent principled conservatives."

Do we want to copy Europe?

Henry Olsen, Vice President of the American Enterprise Institute, says the Huckabee political model bears some resemblance to the Christian Democratic Parties of such European countries as Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. These are so-called "mainstream conservative" parties by European standards.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Olsen points out that Europe's Christian Democrats try to balance the forces of government-provided welfare policies as advocated by their socialist opponents with a blend of capitalism. They have accepted high unemployment and high taxation as the prices to be paid for maintaining that balance. Voters should ask themselves if that is what they want here.

Reagan conservatism, on the other hand, was based on the ethos of the Founding Fathers, who were extremely suspicious of government, and favored the "can do" approach. Reagan "tapped into" concerns of small businesses and blue collar workers without bashing success or wallowing in class hatred.

A younger Reagan weighs in

Michael Reagan, in his own column, threw his support to Senator McCain, in part because "he's the only one in the upper tier who is consistent ... from one year to the next, and from one decade to the next, on issues important to this campaign."

Now, I love Mike Reagan, but he isn't just wrongheaded on that one, he is also factually inaccurate. McCain for whom I have the highest respect as a war hero and ardent advocate of a strong defense and as a principled budget-cutter is simply not always consistent "on issues important to this campaign." The Arizona senator voted against the Bush tax cuts, but now says he opposes letting them expire, as the Democrats would do if they had unfettered power. Pray tell what is there about the tax cuts that made them so wrong in 2001 and 2003 and so beneficial in 2008? ("Change" alert: McCain nonetheless says that voting against the Bush tax cuts was the right thing to do at the time. Go figure.)

A set-up for New Hampshire and beyond?

It is now assumed in some quarters of the liberal punditry (as of this writing, between Iowa and New Hampshire) that the Iowa results have set the stage for a Huckabee vs. McCain contest, especially if Senator John McCain wins New Hampshire and that Romney will essentially be edged out. That would leave the Republicans with two candidates who have liberal records on some important issues. How convenient! It won't happen. Romney has the troops on the ground to carry this forward. He's not about to give up overnight.

Thompson: an enigma

There are those who hold it against Fred Thompson that he got into the race late. I'm not sure that is entirely to his disadvantage. The decision by the screen actor and former senator to announce at about the traditional time can be taken as a thumb in the eye to the notion that for two years, we must ignore the gut-wrenching events involving those who currently occupy positions of responsibility. There is resentment that somehow today's Congress at the here and now and President Bush, love him or hate him, is still there for another year should be pushed off the front pages to make room for all these wannabes.

So again, what is conservative?

The "second tier" Republican candidates are making strong cases for what they see as unalloyed conservatism. But they have had to fight for space in the media, which have decreed that only the candidates whom they anoint as "viable" are deserving of their precious air and print space.

They have all but ignored former Ambassador Alan Keyes and Congressman Duncan Hunter even though the former has a stellar reputation among veteran diplomats of the Reagan administration and throughout the world, and even though the latter was in Congress for 28 years and was a mover and shaker as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

They tried to ignore Ron Paul, but some of his views were so unique that he managed to pierce the paper curtain, and the media don't quite know what to do with him. Congressman Paul is on sound footing regarding the main social and economic issues, but falls off the sled on the Iraq War and other defense and foreign policy concerns. He claims he is the true "Taft Republican" of today. But many conservatives with long memories who backed the late Senator Robert Taft against Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 GOP convention will tell you that if the Ohio senator were alive today, there is no way he would back away from the terrorist threat. There is a difference between non-interventionism and neo-pacifism.

Stick to the issues

There is one issue on which Alan Keyes, Duncan Hunter, and Ron Paul so-called "second tier" candidates have emphasized: Protecting American sovereignty, which is being threatened by internationalist brainstorms such as the Law of the Sea Treaty (about which, see past columns) and the Security and Prosperity Partnership ("harmonizing" the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) about which we have also commented. These concerns elicit a response from "top tier" candidates only if they are asked about them. Keyes, Hunter, and Paul have affirmatively put them in the spotlight.

The Schlafly platform?

Sovereignty is one of the seven premier concerns that the Eagle Forum's Phyllis Schlafly pinpointed in an October speech to the Family Research Council. The other six include: (1) stop illegal aliens from entering our country; (2) protection of American jobs; (3) opposition to supremacist judges; (4) parental rights to control the upbringing of their children (a right that trumps prerogatives impudently assumed by those who hold your child in a captive audience beyond the threshold of the school (indoctrination center) door; (5) respect for life; and (6) respect for traditional marriage.

To which this column would add and with which we suspect Phyllis Schlafly would agree, though economic issues are not Eagle Forum's emphasis lower taxes; minimal regulation that, pardon the metaphor, is deployed only at that point at which the one's fist truly collides with another's face; an end to out-of-control spending. It goes without saying, we would also include a strong defense policy geared toward an awareness of threats from Islamofascism and Red China.

That should be enough to chew on for now. We'll be back with more as the election cycle proceeds.

© Wes Vernon


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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