In our experience, successful reform of a political party requires a number of difficult steps: diagnosing the party’s ills; discarding backward-looking policies; restating the party’s principles in terms that attract rather than repel skeptics; and crafting proposals that address the broad population’s problems and concerns, not just those of core supporters. Reform requires, as well, an organization that serves as a focal point for reformers, helps incubate new ideas, and leads the battle for their adoption by the party. And it requires, finally, standard-bearers who understand the reform agenda and can explain it clearly to party leaders, to the rank and file, and ultimately to the entire electorate. Money, technology, and tactics matter, of course, but only within a broader reform strategy.
Judged against this template, the reform of the Republican Party is taking, at most, its first halting steps. A politics of nostalgia still attracts too many Republicans, for whom “Back to Reagan” is a mantra that soothes and cures. But we are as far away from the end of the Reagan Administration as Democrats were from FDR at the beginning of the Nixon Administration. Reaganism applied conservative principles to a specific historical situation. If Reagan reappeared today, his principles would be the same, but many of his proposals would not. As long as Republicans imagine that the party’s 1980 platform will solve either today’s public problems or their own political problems, they’ll continue to struggle.They argue for some pretty close parallels:
- The Myth of Fundamentalism: some Republicans think pure Reaganism is their solution, just as 1980s Democrats thought they they only had to return to pure FDR liberalism .
- The Myth of Mobilization: some Republicans think that they only have to do better among whites, just as Democrats in the 1980s thought that they only had to mobilize minorities in greater numbers. (Sean Trende might quibble on the data here.)
- The Myth of the Congressional Bastion: some Republicans assume that their control of the House can withstand all national tides, just as 1980s Democrats assumed that they could never lose their own majority.