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The end of the Reagan era

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Monday, 12 March 2012

Firstly let’s indulge in some rank political punditry about where the current Republican race is at and who the remaining candidates are. Then I will attempt to elevate the discussion and talk about what these elections might tell us about the state of American conservatism.

It is entirely fair to say in historical terms this Republican primary has been contested by one of the weakest fields in recent memory. The group has included electoral losers, novelty candidates, the dim, and a flawed front-runner. Far from offering an embarrassment of riches, the contestants for the Republican nomination have often been simply embarrassing, and that has regularly included the gaffe-prone very rich guy.

The most politically successful amongst the candidates is Newt Gingrich, who had great success in the 1994 elections leading the Republicans to their first majority in the House of Representatives since 1955; however, he left Congress pretty much in disgrace in 1999 (and has been making money since working as a lobbyist, or “historian”, for organisations such as Freddie Mac that Republicans are supposed to dislike). Then there is Rick Santorum, a hardline socially conservative Roman Catholic, who lost his 2006 Senate re-election bid by a very substantial margin (hardly something to build a presidential bid upon).  


The only real winner left in the race is Mitt Romney, but this one term Governor would have struggled to get re-elected in Massachusetts. Finally, there is Ron Paul who is not really running to become president. He is running to change America. He wants to put in place a Jeffersonian approach to economics and foreign policy that has not been much seen since the nineteenth century. Paul believes that American military interventions abroad not only drain America of lives and money but also undermine the Republican values in the constitution because an expansionist military requires secrecy and is no friend of liberty at home.

The big surprise of the primary season has been Rick Santorum. His poll numbers in Iowa were between 1-5 per cent for a long time; however, he surged very late and won the Iowa caucus (unfortunately for him he was only recognised as the winner two weeks later). That day, January 19, signalled the end of Romney’s “easy run” to the nomination as it was the day when Newt Gingrich turned his fortunes around by using a question about marital infidelity to verbally attack the moderator in a CNN-hosted debate. This moment of television theatrics catapulted Gingrich on to win the January 21 South Carolina primary. Gingrich’s one man show was always likely to implode and did, giving the only other vaguely plausible anti-Romney candidate left – Rick Santorum – a chance to shine. He did just that by going on to win on February 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

The interesting question is why the long time favourite Mitt Romney has been unable to beat off his opponents. Romney looks and sounds the part. He was a successful businessperson, head of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and Governor of a solidly Democratic state. He definitely seems like presidential material. However, the moderate policy positions that he held when Governor of Massachusetts, his decided wealth in a time of populism in the GOP and his regular tendency to produce gaffes on the trail (or what might best be called unforced errors) make him vulnerable.

Romney has the John Kerry problem in that he lacks the common touch and only looks ham-fisted when he tries. Obama has not always been a man of the people either but at least he is considered cool by a large number of people.

Turning our attention to bigger questions: do the current Republican primaries suggest American conservatism is still strong? Is this vitality evident in the multi-headed nature of the conservative movement with its establishment, tea party, libertarian, and social/religious conservative elements? In other words, the idea that America is basically a right of centre nation lives on.

Or rather does the election suggest that American conservatism is in a sorry state desperately fighting off its decline? This second position is suggested by Jonathan Chait in the latest edition of the New York magazine. Chait argues that demographics will make it hard for the current Republican Party (with its conservative views on social issues and hard-line immigration policies) to win future presidential elections. This position is known as the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis.


Chait argues that the Republicans sense that votes are shifting away from them; thus talk of this being the most important election in a generation is commonplace as they struggle to defy the new demographics.

Left-liberals often have a tendency to see the future bending in their direction (be it via demographics, economics or changing attitudes) and as history proves they have often been overly optimistic, particularly in the case of the US. Many thought that at the end of the 1970s America and the West would enter a new era of social democracy. The election of Reagan and the long reign of Reaganomics in the U.S. proved such predictions badly wrong.

That said the times do seem to be changing. There is a sense of desperation and hollowness as Republicans cling on to the legacy of Reagan and candidates this season calls themself a child of Reagan (except of course Ron Paul). I get the sense that the Reagan era is slowly coming to an end as deficits will have to be cut, taxes on the wealthy are likely to be increased and defence spending will be cut. The Reagan fantasy that America can have everything is being cautiously confronted. The problem Obama has had is that an electorate used to magical promises and myths will struggle to warm to talk of limits and fiscal responsibility.

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This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 9 March 2012. 

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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