Political Animal


November 15, 2012 10:55 AM It’s Still 1980!

By Ed Kilgore

Anyone paying attention to the late election cycle had to have become aware at some point that Republicans were obsessed with seeing parallels to the 1980 elections. Obama was cast as Jimmy Carter, of course, and though Mitt Romney wasn’t terribly Reaganesque, everything that was destined to happen made his election certain: the “economic referendum,” the “better off than four years ago” challenge, the late-breaking undecideds, the “enthusiasm gap,” etc. etc. Given what actually happened, you’d figure they might give it a rest.

But the Return to the Roaring Eighties meme may be getting a new life from a somewhat different direction: the argument that today’s Republican Establishment is finally being brushed aside to make way for—wait for it!—a Reagan Renaissance. This is the central conceit of a long column at Forbes by Ralph Benko, for whom the humiliation of Karl Rove means the coast is clear for the return of the true Reaganites in the party after the long Bushian interregnum. Gee, I had wondered why Rove had been kept around in a position of power and visibility in Republicanland after the conservative movement had repudiated all his strategies for expanding the party base (Medicare Rx drugs, No Child Left Behind, comprehensive immigration reform) as RINO conspiracies! Guess they needed to blame one more election on him! But here’s Benko:

Liberals do not grasp the distinction between Ronald Reagan and (either) George Bush. This blind spot creates a massive confusion and hazard to their ambitions. Obama defeated neither the Reagan Narrative nor Team Reagan. Team Bush appropriated, and then marginalized, both. Obama beat Team Bush, not Team Reagan. The implications are huge.

After a few graphs of describing the Reagan presidency as a period of unparalleled happiness for the entire human race, Benko explains the sad and treacherous denouement:

In an intraparty succession barely noticed by the mainstream media the Bush forces supplanted the Reagan forces within the GOP. Keepers of the Reagan legacy tended to end up at positions of respect and influence within the conservative movement. For example Reagan intimate, counselor, and attorney general Edwin Meese III long has held a prestigious office with the Heritage Foundation, the flagship of the Washington conservative establishment. Even though Meese was a General in the Reagan Revolution, though, his influence on a Bush cohort-dominated GOP — one that chiseled Reagan onto Rushmore while ignoring Reagan’s philosophy — is constrained.

Since “liberals” don’t know the difference between Reagan and the Bushes, it’s no wonder we missed this quiet coup in the GOP, masked as it was by the unanimous movement-conservative support for George W. Bush going into the 2000 elections. But in any event, the Babylonian Captivity is over, and now it’s time for the Reagan Renaissance, to be led at the state level by governors Mike Pence of Indiana and Sam Brownback of Kansas; in the Senate by Marc Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz (under the tutelage of “the great Jim DeMint”), and in the House by Jim Jordan (Pence’s successor as chair of the right-wing Republican Study Committee), Kevin Brady (a Benko favorite for his “sound dollar” convictions) and “of course, Paul Ryan.”

Now I’m mentioning this column not just to make fun of Benko’s remarkable revisionism, but because it’s very likely his views are far more representative of those of the conservative activist base of the GOP than all the breast-beating we are hearing from gabbers and Beltway types about the need to win over Latinos or look less obstructionist. And even among the breast-beaters, if you peel away the rhetoric they are mostly saying, like Benko, that the best way to create a “new” GOP is to dig deeper into the party’s past. A “Reagan Renaissance” is just what the quack ordered for a political community that knows it’s sick but can’t give up its unhealthy addictions.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • kd bart on November 15, 2012 11:02 AM:

    The Republicans are Jay Gatsby and the Reagan years are their youthful affair with Daisy.

  • ComradeAnon on November 15, 2012 11:03 AM:

    Kind of a new "Fergit?! Hell No!"

  • MattF on November 15, 2012 11:06 AM:

    I guess this means there will be a new campaign to put Reagan's visage on the dime, replacing FDR. Which would be a great victory, practically guaranteeing that a Reagan Republican will be elected in 2016.

  • Ron Byers on November 15, 2012 11:07 AM:

    Is he talking about Reagan the man or Reagan the myth?

    Frankly, neither is all that relevant to 2012.

  • Neil B.... on November 15, 2012 11:09 AM:

    Maybe, and ironically there could be some good in that. Reagan's tax reforms cut rates but also cut deductions and made the code simpler (?) which is a good thing. Most important, he argued that rates for capital gains etc. shouldn't be lower than for earned income, that was in the reforms too. If today's "conservatives" could get off their kick of sucking up to the speculator class and agree to bring CG rates up to ordinary levels, we may well not need to raise any statutory rates. But, note that Ryan wanted to lower CG, dividend, and estate rates to zero! No wonder his rubbish wouldn't have lowered the debt even with drastic spending cuts to the things most people need most.

    In any case, time for Democrats to push hard to equalize type-rates. Will they? Probably not unless we push them.

  • boatboy_srq on November 15, 2012 11:11 AM:

    Reagan intimate, counselor, and attorney general Edwin Meese III

    Meese? Really? The best "Reagan general" they can come up with is this asshat?

    Then again, the Teahad is so radical they probably dismiss James Watt (he of "when the last tree is felled the Messiah will come") as some squishy tree-hugging environmentalist.

  • Repack Rider on November 15, 2012 11:12 AM:

    Reagan is "Dead Man Running."

  • Mimikatz on November 15, 2012 11:16 AM:

    And just which of those mentioned fellows is going to play Reagan in the remake?

    That is one of the problems with this kind of thinking. Reaganism required both conservatism and a politician with Reagan's sunny disposition and political gifts. The dimwit scolds like Jim deMint and Paul Ryan are the antithesis of Reagan.

    The second problem is that 30 years on the white working class on which Reaganism depended is shrinking, and the cohort replacing it has figures out via such things as the auto bailout and Dodd-Frank that government isn't the problem, it is the only thing standing between them and predatory capitalism with it's devastating down cycles.

  • Keith M Ellis on November 15, 2012 11:20 AM:

    Well, conservatives are ... conservative. It's no surprise that the GOP is highly inclined to believe that the answer is in the past. That's traditionalism, the antonym of progressivism.

    What's more interesting to me, however, are the manifestations of traditionalism and progressivism in the Democratic Party and among putative progressives. We're not immune to looking to a romanticized past as a model for the present or the future — perhaps some of what happened in the 80s can be explained as middle-aged former Democrats who'd idealized Kennedy internalizing the implicit message that their fantasies of an ideal past were actually conservative, not progressive. Put differently, progressives idealize past movements and leaders and write hagiographies at their peril — this activity implicitly teaches people to look backward and not forward, to trust in the past and mistrust the present and future. One reason that (many) conservatives tend more to pessimism and like to think of themselves as realists is that they're drawn to the worldview that things today are much worse than they once were, that things are going to hell in a handbasket.

    Progressives preach such messages, too, but for the same reasons as I just mentioned, that is a dangerous message because it implies that it is better to look to the past for answers, and not the future. It implicitly validates traditionalism.

  • scott_m on November 15, 2012 11:22 AM:

    We all know what IOKIYAR means. I'd like to suggest another abbreviation: CCFICOBF-- Conservatism Cannot Fail, It Can Only Be Failed. We're going to be encountering this sentiment quite a bit in the months and years to follow, so I think we can save some keystrokes in calling it what it is.

    Extra bonus feature: The same abbreviation can serve to stand for the Cold War Red whine Communism Cannot Fail, It Can Only Be Failed. Nice coincidence, don't you think?

  • kd bart on November 15, 2012 11:22 AM:

    "The Republicans believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

  • Brian on November 15, 2012 11:23 AM:

    Mike Pence?! As in 'Pense the Dense'?

    Ralph Benko is an idiot; as a former 'Reagan Republican' who is now a Democrat, myself and most 'Liberals' know the difference between the two. I think Romney wanted to be like Reagan in a 'cut taxes and increase defense spending/size of government enough to nearly bankrupt the country' style.

    Thank God he was shot down.

  • greennotGreen on November 15, 2012 11:29 AM:

    There are some parallels, but not exactly where the revisionists think they are. If you look at how much the national debt increased under Reagan http://zfacts.com/p/318.html , that's similar to Obama, although his is due to inherited wars, inherited tax cuts, and the economic downturn. And there's the Benghazi parallel: four Americans killed on Obama's watch and 241 American service members killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing on Reagan's watch. If Jimmy Carter's military operation had been as successful at rescuing the hostages in Iran as Obama's was in killing bin Laden, Carter might have won a second term, and the United States might now be a world leader in renewable energy instead of a world leader in causing global warming.

    Yep, all sorts of parallels.

  • Peter C on November 15, 2012 11:29 AM:

    All of this sounds like, "we lost because we weren't conservative enough". They seem stuck on the idea that "Reagan was POPULAR and Reagan was CONSERVATIVE, so CONSERVATIVE is POPULAR!". But, I agree with @Mimikatz. I think Reagan was popular because we was an ACTOR who could pretend to be a kindly Grandpa figure while implementing the policies of a 'pre-visitation Ebeneezer Scrooge'. We wanted a kindly Grandpa in charge and he used his acting skills to convince us (despite the evidence of our lying eyes) that he was.

  • toowearyforoutrage on November 15, 2012 11:34 AM:

    How many Reagan Team members will be ready to take the wheel again 36 years later?

    It doesn't look like the concept of shrinking demographics has yet sunk in over at the Elephant zoo.

    guys, if you want to go Retro, how about a popular Republican who could beat Democrats who didn't end their first term with double digit stagflation and hostages being held by a buncha teenagers?

    Military power? Check.
    Proven Leadership? Check.
    Infrastructure Development? Triple Check.

    Ronnie steamrolled a peanut farmer with lust in his heart. Dwight put his boot heel down on Hitler's neck.
    Pick your real champ from history.

    Check the poster at:

    You want a guy to beat Democrats who "give people stuff"? Dwight is your man.

  • Josef K on November 15, 2012 11:35 AM:

    the argument that today’s Republican Establishment is finally being brushed aside to make way for—wait for it!—a Reagan Renaissance

    They might as well exhume the corpse; I daresay it'll be less...stinky that what we'll likely see.

  • Wayne N. Gibbous on November 15, 2012 11:39 AM:

    Good one, Ed, "..unparalleled happiness for the entire human race." If that was unparalleled happiness, let's not go back there.

  • Mudge on November 15, 2012 11:42 AM:

    Right at the top of the article, next to Benko's photo it says "Economic growth policy, especially the gold standard..". This should be enough to discount him as a Reaganite and as a sane individual. Later he spends a lot of time extolling tax cuts with trickle down effects. As we know, Reagan discovered that didn't work.

    I'm guessing he chose the Reagan Revolution for the Republican escape route from Bushism (so loudly referenced in the late election..my bad, it was "Bush Who") because the party has no other ideas. The Hoover Hodown or Coolidge Comeback have a less appealing ring.

    And we all hated those Meese's to pieces, of course.

  • Rick Massimo on November 15, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Everyone in America under age 35: "Ronald WHO?"

  • T2 on November 15, 2012 11:51 AM:

    This is more like Bunco than Benko...a shell game to keep stupid GOPers tricked.
    Sad as it is to say, the Reagan years so worshipped by Conservative Republicans were marked by the fact their godlike president was in the onset of Alzheimers for most of his second term. The fact that Conservatives have chosen to idolize a man who's wife had to whisper words into his ears for him to even speak tells you all you need to know about his presidency. I certainly don't mean to make fun of Alzheimers, as it has struck my family as well, but I sure wouldn't want my uncle Charles running the country, thinking June was September.

  • jjm on November 15, 2012 11:53 AM:

    Obama's policies have turned back the Reagan Revolution. All of this pretense about its 'return' from the dead is pure nonsense. It is between two deaths, and it will soon be banished (once Reagan's main achievement, killing the middle class to make a few people very very wealthy) is G O N E .

  • Jim Strain on November 15, 2012 12:04 PM:

    Ed Freaking MEESE??? Meese is, was, and always has been a partisan hack. He's the guy who said the CL in ACLU stood for "criminal lobby." As AG, he was obsessed with pornography and obscenity. Meese was a political aide to Governor Reagan, and during the four-year interregnum before Reagan ran for president, Meese held a sinecure at the (GOP-dominated) San Diego area aerospace company where I worked. From all I could tell, his job description there didn't include that he would ever actually have to show up.

  • Daryl McCullough on November 15, 2012 12:23 PM:

    Conservatives who get defeated are not true conservatives. When a true conservative comes along, he will of course win in a landslide.

    (George W. Bush was obviously not a true conservative, because he lost the popular vote in 2000, and only won by a couple of percentage points in 2004).

  • MFA on November 15, 2012 12:25 PM:

    "A 'Reagan Renaissance' is just what the quack ordered for a political community that knows it’s sick but can’t give up its unhealthy addictions."

    "Duuude, don'cha know? You won't get hooked if the stuff is really pure; it's the additives that do that. And I just happen to have the finest, cleanest, totally uncut Reagan Republicanism right here! Sure it costs more, but it's way, waaaay better than that Bush-league crap you been shooting! Remember that first time you tried big-C Conservativism back in the Eighties? It's like that, maaaan. So--wunt sum?" -- Today's recidivist grifter

    "No." -- The electorate

  • Juanita de Talmas on November 15, 2012 12:48 PM:

    Conservatives have chosen to idolize a man who's wife had to whisper words into his ears for him to even speak

    And don't forget that what she was whispering in his ear was the latest revelation she had gotten from her astrologer.

  • gregor on November 15, 2012 12:50 PM:

    Ronald Reagan from somewhere: Conservative what? Republican who?

  • Bokonon on November 15, 2012 1:40 PM:

    More cowbell! MORE COWBELL!!!

  • Anonymous on November 15, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Parallel to 1980 that i appreciate is that Obama could be our Reagan. Bush Jr is Jimmy Carter (but without Carter's later triumph as a Noble peace winner) .

    Politically speaking, of course.

    We might not like it but Reagan's "Great Moderation" as backlash to LBJ's Great Society is still here with us.
    My hope is that Great Recession and Obama's neo-progressivism (my own labeling) will reserve some of the modified then escalated conservatism from the past 30 years.

    Supply side economic was nearly killed by Clinton but only to be revived by Bush Jr.
    Clinton however deregulated banks and passed welfare reform that has mixed success and failure.

    We do not want to go back all the way to "big government" of FDR or Wilson when debt was too high and taxes were too high. Those were emergency periods.
    We also do not like "small government" of Coolidge or Reagan when taxes were too low and government did nothing to regulate markets. debt was also too high.

  • Doug on November 15, 2012 7:12 PM:

    Good gadfrey, there's a male Peggy Noonan?

  • Ralph Benko on November 24, 2012 8:49 PM:

    Dudes. I'm all in with Bokonon. MORE COWBELL!

    This could be an even more potent plank for '16 than "more tax cuts."

    Let me pass it on to my buddies in the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.

    Could be key to retaking power.

    Don't fear the Reaper!

    Peace out,

    Ralph Benko