Even with John McCain as the presumptive Republican nominee, supporters of Texas Congressman Ron Paul remain vociferous in their support of his presidential candidacy, and in earning him a prime-speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. Paul’s vision of lassie-faire economics, non-interventionist foreign policy, and maximized civil liberties may become the prevailing Republican orthodoxy within the next 20 years.
The current coalition which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1981 include “Theo-conservatives” who advocate a greater government involvement in enforcing a moral code by promoting traditional values, “Supply-siders” who believe tax cuts bring in enough revenue to pay for themselves, and “Neo-Conservatives” who believe that the U.S. must promote Democracy abroad, with force if necessary, in hopes of creating a world free from despotism.
This coalition consisted of many refugees from the Democratic Party who felt that the Party, which championed tax-cuts, idealism, assertiveness in foreign policy, and the values of the middle-class under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, had become an amalgamation of special interests and liberal intellectuals. The “Reagan Coalition” reached its high watermark in 1984 when Reagan was re-elected in a 49-state landslide. The Coalition was also largely responsible for George H.W. Bush’s successful presidential bid in 1988.
However, like all political coalitions, the house Reagan built could be gradually reaching its crescendo. Many Republicans have become disillusioned with the way President George W. Bush has governed; using what could be an antiquated Reagan model. The President’s assertive foreign policy has led to a widely unpopular war in Iraq, which many believe is not in the interest of the country. As more and more Americans are living by the paycheck, spending $12 billion a month in Iraq for Bush’s idealistic vision of “ending tyranny in our world” is seen as an ill-advised use of American blood and treasure.
Ron Paul’s vision is not new to the Republican Party. It could be that the Republican Party in a post-Iraq, post-Bush world will go back to a pre-Reagan vision, the status-quo-ante, “the way things were before,” when the Republican Party advocated a platform very similar to Paul’s. While many today consider Paul’s image out of the mainstream, it was once the prevailing sentiment among the Party elites.
This winning coalition under presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921-1929 championed the doctrine of non-intervention in foreign policy. Harding asserted, America should “be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority." In the domestic arena, taxes and spending were reduced simultaneously, and the federal government actually paid off debt. In addition, the General Accounting Office was established for the specific purpose of identifying and spotlighting wasteful government spending.
The last major advocate of this philosophy was the defacto leader of the Republican establishment in the 1940s and early 1950’s, Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft, who at the time was known as “Mr. Republican.” In addition to advocating fiscal austerity at home and non-interventionism abroad, Taft (like Ron Paul) championed civil liberties. Taft opposed prohibition as well as the military draft. Gradually, during the period of the cold war, that message lost its resilience. However, the Ron Paul movement seems to be the beginning or its renaissance.
Often, as political coalitions atrophy, a successful political salesperson modernizes the message to fit the times. For example, the New Deal-Great Society Coalition of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson predicated on labor unions, minorities, liberal intellectuals, conservative southerners and party regulars, dominated the political landscape from 1932-1968. However, the coalition became antiquated, resulting in the Democrats holding the White House for only four of the succeeding 24 years. The coalition had in fact devolved into a confederation of special interests and intellectual liberals. Consequently, many blue-color Democrats abandoned the party at the national level, giving electoral landslides to Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.
It took the candidacy or Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton in 1992 to modernize the prevailing ideology of the Democratic Party. Clinton challenged what was becoming conventional belief that the Democratic Party was a conduit for redistributing wealth. Clinton pledged to expand opportunities through economic growth. He offered “a hand up, not a hand out.” Instead of expanding federal spending, Clinton emphasized Deficit Reduction. What is more, Clinton took on labor unions by supporting expanded trade. This helped to attract urban professionals, suburbanites, and fiscal conservatives into the Democratic fold.
Furthermore, many “Reagan Democrats” who had jettisoned the party in the 1980s came back to the Democratic Party. Many had come to see Democrats as tribunes of the welfare state. Clinton changed that image by pledging to “end Welfare as we know it” and by expanding the federal death penalty. He even left the campaign trail to go back to Arkansas to preside over an execution.
The result of Clinton’s re-orientation of the party put the Democrats in the White House for two straight terms. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Al Gore changed course, running an unsuccessful populist campaign in 2000. His campaign slogan was: “The people versus the powerful.” Perhaps the message should have been: “Let’s continue the prosperity.”
Clinton was not the first proponent of this “New Democrat” philosophy. During the 1980s, presidential candidates Gary Hart, Bruce Babbitt and Al Gore ran on a similar message. However, the party instead nominated vestiges of the “has been” Democratic coalition, nominating Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. The result of this strategy was landslide defeats. It was only after these electoral disasters that the party re-branded its image by nominating a different type of Democrat in 1992, Bill Clinton.
A similar scenario could gradually play out in the GOP. Many Republicans are coming to see their party leaders as advocates for U.S. presence all over the globe, and proponents of increasing the size and scope of government. Many traditional mainstream Republicans are also frustrated by their leadership providing tax cuts without paying for them, leading directly to a ballooning deficit. Some of these dissatisfied Republicans may end up migrating to the Democrats.
Upon choosing some unsuccessful presidential candidacies, the Republican Party will eventually come to nominate someone more ideologically compatible with Ron Paul. To be sure, it would likely be someone more palatable to a wider segment of Americans than Ron Paul. And certainly many of Paul’s ideas, especially closing the CIA, privatizing entitlements, and returning to the gold standard will be moderated. But the important factor here is the likelihood that Paul’s vision may move from the shadowy fringes to the sunlight, and will be embraced by mainstream Republicans and a successful Republican presidential candidate. A revitalized Republican Party may actually emerge in the not so distant future.
Rich Rubino, a resident of Marblehead, Mass., is a political advisor specializing in independent political campaigns. He is a graduate of Assumption College and holds a Masters Degree in Journalism from Emerson College. He was a policy advisor to the Christy Mihos 2006 Massachusetts Gubernatorial Campaign. He also has a new political Web site called www.politicalanalytical.com.