Republicans must choose: Are they the party of Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump?

Reagan’s sunny, inclusive vision and principles are the antithesis of what Trump preaches

By Marcus M. Witcher, Ph.D. author of Getting Right with Reagan; The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016

original published in the Washington Post; 08/24/2020

This week, Republicans will nominate Donald Trump for the second time for president. Trump has built a cult of personality. In the past month alone, he has tweeted about potentially postponing the election and asserted he had the right to limit mail ballot usage — neither of which he has any constitutional authority to do.

These assertions are a stark contrast to what Republicans claimed to support in the last decades of the 20th century — small government and limited federal power. And this is nothing new for Trump. From his comments about Charlottesville, to his family separation and detention policy at the border, to his trade wars with half the world, to his assault on international institutions, to his reckless disregard for separation of powers, Trump has redefined conservatism. He has moved it away from Reagan-era Republicanism — a belief in the rule of law, free trade, civil society, decentralization and working though international organizations abroad. What’s worse is Trump has done so with few objections from many elected Republicans who claim to be Reaganites.

A loss by Trump in November will lead to a moment of reckoning for Republicans and conservatives. But to build a party for the future, they must understand how they got to this moment and how Trump’s brand of conservatism rose to the fore.

Trump’s style of conservatism is not new. In both its ideology and policy positions, it is most similar to the paleoconservatism of Patrick Buchanan, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and was a political commentator. In the wake of the Cold War, some conservatives in the early 1990s began to focus on immigration and a more militant nationalism, as well as reinvigorating the culture wars. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Buchanan was given a prime-time speaking slot after challenging President George H.W. Bush in the primary and receiving almost a quarter of the vote.

Buchanan proclaimed there was “a religious war going on … it is a cultural war.” And who were the enemies in this new war? They were feminists, immigrants in the country without authorization, free traders, internationalists and other purported barbarians who would destroy the fabric of Western civilization. One political journalist, Molly Ivins, quipped the speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”

Immediately after Buchanan spoke, however, Ronald Reagan, addressed a Republican convention for the last time, painting a stark contrast with Buchanan. Reagan called on Republicans to recognize that they were all — regardless of religion, color or creed — “equal in the eyes of God.” But he insisted this was not enough, that as Americans “we must be equal in the eyes of each other.” In contrast to Buchanan’s divisive message of America at war with itself, Reagan reminded the audience “in America, our origins matter less than our destinations.”

The former president mentioned the progress that had been made, but he emphasized “with each sunrise we are reminded that millions of our citizens have yet to share in the abundance of American prosperity … many languish in neighborhoods riddled with drugs and bereft of hope [and] still others hesitate to venture out on the streets for fear of criminal violence.” Reagan asked those present in the convention hall and those at home to pledge “ourselves to a new beginning for them.” He concluded Americans must “apply our ingenuity and remarkable spirit to revolutionize education in America so that everyone among us will have the mental tools to build a better life.”

According to Reagan, only by working together, united as one America, could the country provide equal opportunity and a prosperous future for all Americans.

Commentators recognized the two very different messages being presented. The Washington Post asserted Reagan’s remarks were “a model of sensitivity compared with the hate-filled harangue of Pat Buchanan that preceded it.” The Wall Street Journal noted it was “impossible to imagine Ronald Reagan talking in the way Pat Buchanan does about keeping foreign people and foreign products out of the U.S.” It concluded Reagan would never “give the impression that his political actions drew their energy from reservoirs of bitterness and antipathy.”

Throughout the 1990s, the two different versions of conservatism on display that night in Houston continued to compete for the soul of the movement. In 1996, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “We Knew Reagan and Pat Buchanan is No Gipper,” in which it explained that Reagan’s nationalism “was muscular but also optimistic,” whereas “Buchanan’s darker nationalism flows from a perception of national decline.” While Reagan hailed “America’s immigrant past and future,” Buchanan wanted “a five-year halt in legal immigration.”

At the time, Buchanan’s views lost out. Bob Dole beat him in the 1996 Republican presidential primary, and in his acceptance speech, Dole made clear for “anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion,” the exits were “clearly marked.” And Dole was emphatic that he would not compromise on this inclusive vision.

While Dole lost, George W. Bush won a narrow victory four years later preaching compassionate conservatism with a focus on education, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and welcoming immigrants. Buchanan left the party, running on the Reform Party ticket in 2000.

But Buchanan’s divisive, nationalist, anti-immigrant conception of conservatism never went away, helping to scuttle bipartisan attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in 2006, 2007 and 2013-2014, while often being voiced by an increasingly influential group of conservative commentators.

And in 2016, defying conventional wisdom that to win Republicans needed to reorient their party, especially on immigration, Trump captured the White House by wielding Buchanan’s playbook. Buchanan recognized this, telling Politico in 2017 he was “elated, delighted that Trump picked up on the exact issues on which I challenged Bush. … And then he goes and uses my slogan [Make America First Again]. … It just doesn’t get any better than this.” Reporter Tim Alberta put it succinctly: “Buchanan’s boldest achievement — and perhaps the most lasting aspect of his legacy — was being Trump before Trump was Trump.”

Yet the party of Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan is not the party of Ronald Reagan. Though certainly not without flaws, Reagan offered an optimistic, forward-thinking and more inclusive brand of conservatism on which to build. Indeed, Reagan provided Americans with some of the most quotable passages about the benefits of immigrants to the United States.

The conservative movement is at a crossroads. It can continue the culture wars and welcome the label of hyper-nationalism, xenophobia and even racism — and in the process become all the things critics on the left have claimed it to be all along. Or it can take a step back and reflect on its past. Revisiting the tenants of Reagan conservatism would be a start. Perhaps conservatives could begin by embracing Reagan’s goal that history remember him — and by extension, conservatism — as someone who “appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence, rather than your doubts.”

About the Author Marcus M. Witcher is a scholar-in-residence in both the Department of History and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the coeditor of Public Choice Analyses of American Economic History, Volumes 1–3.

Devine and Kopko discuss “Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections”

The American vice presidency, as the saying goes, “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Yet vice presidential candidates, many people believe, can make all the difference in winning—or losing—a presidential election. Is that true, though? Did Sarah Palin, for example, sink John McCain’s campaign in 2008? Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win? Do running mates actually matter? In the first book to put this question to a rigorous test, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko draw upon an unprecedented range of empirical data to reveal how, and how much, running mates influence voting in presidential elections.

Building on their previous work in The VP Advantage and evidence from over 200 statistical models spanning the 1952 to 2016 presidential elections, the authors analyze three pathways by which running mates might influence vote choice. First, of course, they test for direct effects, or whether evaluations of the running mate influence vote choice among voters in general. Next, they test for targeted effects—if, that is, running mates win votes among key subsets of voters who share their gender, religion, ideology, or geographic identity. Finally, the authors examine indirect effects—that is, whether running mates shape perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected them, which in turn influence vote choice. Here, in this last category, is where we see running mates most clearly influencing presidential voting—especially when it comes to their qualifications for holding office and taking over as president, if necessary. Picking a running mate from a key voting bloc probably won’t make a difference, the authors conclude. But picking an experienced, well-qualified running mate will make the presidential candidate look better to voters—and win some votes.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Do Running Mates Matter? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

This is the most comprehensive analysis yet on the effect of vice presidential candidates in presidential elections. Believe it or not, we find that running mates have very little direct effect on voters, in general, nor do they “deliver” targeted geographic or demographic groups. Instead, running mates matter primarily because they influence voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates who selected them–which means that they are really voting to elect a president rather than a vice president, in the end.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the influence of Vice Presidential candidates?

It started back in 2008, right after John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. We were graduate students at the time, at The Ohio State University, and took a road trip together to see a friend in South Carolina. Naturally, like any political junkies at that time, we were discussing the pros and cons of the Palin pick. One issue was whether McCain should have picked someone from Ohio or another battleground state, to pick up votes in the Electoral College. A lot of pundits were throwing that idea around. We started asking: Is that even true? Has anyone researched this? Back then, we didn’t have internet access on our cell phones and couldn’t look anything up. So we spent most of that drive developing hypotheses and sketching out a research design. That led to our first article, on the vice presidential home state advantage, and then another article and later our first book, The VP Advantage. But we still found ourselves asking whether running mates mattered more broadly, beyond the home state advantage. We wanted to tackle that question in the most comprehensive way possible. So, we knew we had to write this book.

3. You have been researching running mates for most of your career. What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

There isn’t just one way of measuring the effect of a vice presidential candidate, and it’s not always clear which way is best. That’s why, in this book, we use a wide variety of data sources and methodologies to test running mate effects in the most comprehensive way possible. Our conclusions do not rest on a single survey or method of analysis—far from it. We try to show that these results hold up even when you use a range of different approaches. Hopefully, this will give other researchers ideas about how to study this topic and provide further insights into running mate effects in the future.

4. What has been the most consequential Vice Presidential candidate choice of the past 50 years?

Great question. Joel Goldstein—author of The White House Vice Presidency, also from UPK—provides excellent insight here. His research shows that Jimmy Carter’s choice of Walter Mondale in 1976, and their subsequent election, really started a transformation of the vice president’s role into the more consequential one that we know today. If we’re talking about electoral consequences, though, perhaps John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 is the most notable. Our research shows that voters’ perceptions of Palin’s readiness—or lack thereof—to serve as president, if necessary, really affected their perceptions of McCain’s judgment, and even whether he was too old to be president. In that sense, choosing Palin undermined the rationale for McCain’s candidacy—that he had what it took to be president, and Barack Obama did not.

5. What is one common misconception about the influence of running mates in presidential elections?

That running mates are, or can be, “game changers”—in other words, a brilliant strategic choice that can rescue a losing campaign, if needed. This is what the McCain campaign expected in 2008, when choosing Sarah Palin. And, we say at one point in the book, this kind of pick is really quite foolish—and reckless, to boot. Running mates matter, but mostly at the margins, and probably can do more to hurt rather than help a campaign. Chances are, voters are going to see such a desperate electoral strategy for what it is, and think all the worse of a presidential candidate for making an irresponsible choice. But even if that presidential candidate were to win the race, now he or she will be deprived of an effective partner in the White House for four or years to come—or, worse yet, saddled with someone who is a hindrance to the administration, or a distraction. Ultimately, we think—and our research shows—that the best electoral strategy is to choose a running mate who is clearly qualified to be the next vice president, or president, if necessary.

6. Has the importance of running mates increased or decreased since the election of 1952?

We don’t see any evidence, in our book, that running mates have any more effect on presidential election outcomes over time. But, certainly, vice presidents have become much more important since the 1950s—and so the stakes of selecting and electing a vice presidential candidate have increased. Here, we’d refer back to Joel Goldstein’s outstanding research on The White House Vice Presidency. Starting with Mondale in the 1970s, vice presidents have come to play a key role as a general advisor to the president and a liaison in terms of congressional relations and foreign affairs. And it’s very likely that vice presidents will continue to be influential in future administrations.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

We want to give readers the opportunity to put the conventional wisdom about vice presidential candidates to the test. Frankly, there’s a lot of bad punditry out there—on this topic, perhaps more than any other. For years, too many people have treated the “veepstakes” as something of a parlor game—brazenly strategizing about how to buy votes on the cheap through vice presidential selection, as if voters are so easily manipulated (when the presumed strategist, of course, is not) and the whole exercise is merely symbolic. Rarely have their assumptions been put to the test, and nowhere as comprehensively as what we provide in our book. With this research, we hope not only to help inform readers about the myths and realities of running mate effects but also to empower them to reject bad punditry and demand better in the future.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Joe Biden—or any other presidential candidate who has the responsibility of choosing a running mate, in a given election year. It bears repeating that vice presidents play a major role in modern American government. They can be a tremendous asset to any presidential administration trying to enact its agenda and lead the country responsibly. What a shame it would be—for the president, and for the country—if someone came into that office not because he or she is the most qualified person to do so, but because Joe Biden or any other presidential candidate overestimated a running mate’s ability to influence the outcome of an election. By providing a more realistic assessment of running mate effects, we hope to convince our readers—which, ideally, could include presidential candidates and their advisers—to focus on the real importance of a potential vice president’s qualifications, rather than his or her purported electoral advantages.

 

Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Kyle C. Kopko is associate professor of political science, associate dean, and director of the legal studies major at Elizabethtown College.