The annual Conservative Political Action Conference gets underway Thursday morning at National Harbor, just across the Potomac River from Ronald Reagan National Airport. Thanks to events in Kiev this week, you can bet there will be a lot of rumbling from the lectern about turning back Russian expansionism, along with heated denunciations of the Democratic president for his spineless internationalism and socialist tendencies, and calls for government to stop taxing the citizenry.
In other words, the whole thing will feel like it belongs in an episode of “The Americans,” minus the intrigue or the likable characters.
What you won’t hear as much about at CPAC are any coherent and competing visions of what conservative government ought to look like. A few smart young Republicans, like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, will offer some isolated ideas for scrapping antipoverty programs or rejiggering some taxes, but none of that so far amounts to a larger theory of why Republicans have failed to win the confidence of enough American voters to win national elections, or how they need to change. And from now until 2016, that’s really what CPAC and every gathering like it should be about.
I have had this conversation before with friends in Washington, and I can already hear the howls of protest on all sides. Conservatives will scream that lower taxes and limited government is a plenty viable philosophy, and one that has worked before. Liberals will insist that 20th century conservatism was always about dismantling programs, rather than offering any actual solutions, and nothing has changed.
But both sides should consider the history of modern conservatism, and what enabled Ronald Reagan to establish it as a dominant ideology almost 35 years ago. A child of Depression-era Democrats and (like most of the day’s influential conservative thinkers) a disaffected liberal himself, Reagan had lived through the largest expansion of the federal government — economically and socially — in American history. As an activist in the 1960s and then a governor and leading conservative spokesman in the 1970s, he confronted a two-party establishment whose time-honored theories seemed inadequate to the trends of accelerating de-industrialization and global instability.
Buttressed by new, provocative think tanks and some academic outliers, Reagan made an entirely different kind of argument about Washington’s role in the society. While his chief opponent in the 1980 primaries, George H.W. Bush, carried the Keynesian brief for targeted tax breaks and a recalibration of federal spending, Reagan called for a radical slate of tax cuts and a rollback of federal regulations. (Bush predicted Reagan’s policies, which he later helped enact as vice president, would lead to an inflation rate of more than 30 percent.)
Reagan said his tax cuts would lead to more revenue for the federal government, but at the heart of his case was a new indictment of government itself. Washington didn’t collect the tax money it needed to spend, Reagan said; rather, it managed to spend whatever it collected. Where Washington actually needed to put more money, Reagan thought, was in the Cold War, because American leaders had gone wobbly in the years since Vietnam.
What Reagan proposed, in other words, was a series of historical correctives. He and his likeminded contemporaries believed that government had overreached and overreacted to events in the decades prior, and as a result it had become too much of a force in American life and not enough of one around the world.
Whatever one thought of this argument, its effect on American government and culture is hard to overstate. Reaganism begat Clintonism, which led to a fundamental shift in liberal thought and, ultimately, to the rise of George W. Bush and the near extinction of moderate Republicans. This is why Barack Obama, who turned 19 in 1980, cited Reagan as a transformational president during the 2008 primaries, infuriating some liberals.
But here’s the problem for today’s younger cadre of conservative leaders, who grew up at the zenith of American conservatism: Reagan’s ideology today is as ingrained in the political system and as insufficient to the moment as traditional liberalism was in 1980. When Reagan became president, the top tax rate was 70 percent; it’s now half that and has been even lower. The rapid withdrawal of government from regulating the private sector has contributed to environmental peril and near collapse of the financial and housing industries. The end of communism has unleashed a dangerous mix of nationalist and religious forces, which no superpower alone can hope to contain.
Like a lot of the liberals they disdained in their youth, the older conservatives who followed Reagan into power are now embedded in the power structure of Washington. The think tanks that once inspired rebellious thought, like the Heritage Foundation, now exist mostly to enforce a rigid ideology.
It’s not that Reagan and his conservative legions didn’t have a legitimate point — or a lot of legitimate points — in their critique of 20th century government. It’s more that you can be right for a while, but then you can fail to adapt to changing circumstances. That was the resonant argument behind Reaganism in its day, and it’s the conundrum for those who would now lay claim to his legacy.
So the question these conservative activists should be asking Ryan and Rubio and Rand Paul and Chris Christie this week — the question to which they should demand an answer between now and 2016 — is not how they’re going to return America to the 1980s, but rather what animates conservative governance after all the taxes have been cut and after most of the old communists have been laid to rest.
What’s the corrective to yawning inequality? How do you preserve entitlement programs (as Reagan did) while addressing the imbalance between spending on the old and investment in the young? What kind of missile defense will protect America’s financial and power grids from cyberattack, rather than from nuclear warheads? What makes the conservative argument relevant now?
It may be fun to listen to a bunch of speakers rail against another Democratic president and the ghosts of American liberalism. When the week is over, though, most of the activists at CPAC will return to the airport across the river, past the bronze statue of Reagan at the entrance, and they’ll need to ask themselves: Where next?