The Reagan Revolution Lives

We must wait for several weeks to learn who will serve as President from January 2005 to January 2009. But one question asked in 2000 can now be answered: Will the Reagan coalition continue to define the nature and structure of the modern Republican Party?

In 2000, Texas governor George W. Bush ran as the heir to Ronald Reagan’s coalition, dedicated to cutting taxes, limiting government, maintaining a strong national defense, and keeping the secular state from trampling the rights of believers and parents. This “Leave Us Alone” coalition doesn’t demand validation. Gun owners oppose gun control; they don’t demand “gun stamps,” or that public school children read Heather Has Two Hunters.

This coalition was challenged by Pat Buchanan, who suggested the GOP be transformed into an anti-immigration party of protectionism and isolationism. It was a reasonable proposal: The Republican Party of the early twentieth century looked a lot like this. But in 2000, Pat Buchanan dropped out of the GOP primary and won only 450,000 votes, or 0.42 percent, as a Reform Party candidate, dwarfed by Ralph Nader’s 3 million votes.

Others suggested different alternatives. Arizona Senator John McCain offered something approaching an American Gaullism—not a vision, but his own persona. Some favored “National Greatness Conservatism,” arguing that Americans could find meaning through the state rather than individual pursuits like faith or work. At various times, this philosophy was attributed to McCain or Steve Forbes, both of whom flirted with the appellation.

The 2004 Republican primaries were the testing ground for these different visions, and the Reagan/Bush vision was the clear victor. First off, no protectionist or anti-immigrant candidate presented himself in the GOP primary, even for a symbolic run. (In 1972, 1976, and 1992, sitting Republican Presidents faced primary opponents.) And in the primary campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate in 2004, Republicans re-committed themselves to the small government, low tax consensus.

On taxes, every single Republican to win an open primary seat has signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. In Nebraska, the heir apparent to retiring Congressman Doug Bereuter, state senator Curt Bramm, was defeated solely because he backed a state tax hike. The obvious GOP candidate to run in Oregon’s 5th district, the African American Jackie Winters, was defeated in her primary because she voted for a Democratic tax hike in 2003. In Kansas, all four Congressional primaries and the senate primary were won by candidates opposing tax hikes. Even the son of former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum, a tax hiker, was defeated by the anti-tax candidate in the primary contest for his state representative seat. The effort by some in the media to create a “pro-tax increase” wing of the Republican Party was revealed as a liberal media fantasy.

Immigrant bashing failed in a primary challenge against Representative Chris Cannon of Utah, the President’s strongest ally in maintaining a pro-immigrant GOP. Cannon defeated primary challenger Matt Throckmorton despite the best efforts of immigrant bashing groups. Up and coming conservative state legislator Rick Oller lost his primary when his anti-immigrant ads were denounced as promoting anti-Muslim bigotry. Wealthy Republican Representative Tim Phillips was defeated in a primary by Goli Ameri—partly in response to his campaign’s attacks on the Iranian’s ethnicity. Conservative leader Vernon Robinson lost his bid for the Republican nomination to Virginia Foxx after Jack Kemp denounced his anti-immigration advertising and withdrew his endorsement.

Protectionism had its best opportunity for a comeback in textile-sensitive South Carolina when former governor David Beasley ran on the strength of name recognition and financing from protectionist textile magnate Roger Milliken. He was defeated by nearly 20 points by free trader Jim DeMint. No Republican who voted for a free trade agreement, from NAFTA to Chile to Singapore, has lost a primary as a result.

The principles and commitments of a party need to be tested in primary challenges. In a free and democratic society, good policy only thrives if it’s run through the wringer of sound politics. The lesson of the last four years is that the limited government, pro-free trade, and immigrant-friendly Reagan coalition remains intact.