In Scripture in the Book of II Kings chapter two the last thing the prophet Elijah did as he ascended into heaven on a chariot of fire was to remove his mantle and throw it at the feet of his successor the prophet Elisha. Elisha took up Elijah’s mantle and carried on the great work that Elijah had done for the children of Israel.
In January 1989 when the late Ronald Reagan ended his Presidency and flew off into the political sunset he threw his mantle at the feet of his political successors in the Republican Party. Since that time the struggle for the mantle of Ronald Reagan has consumed the G.O.P. and has in many ways torn asunder the great electoral coalition that Reagan constructed in the 1980s.
Reagan in 1980 and 1984 harnessed his genius for Presidential campaigning (a genius in my opinion that bordered on virtuosity—Reagan and FDR in my opinion were the two greatest Presidential campaigners in American political history) to win two enormous landslides which gave him the mandate to alter the American socio-political landscape; make American conservatism a viable and dominant force in G.O.P. politics; while attaining an exalted status that became the closest thing to a cult of personality never before seen in American politics. (Not even the cult-like status JFK received after his assassination equals the apotheosis Reagan achieved. JFK’s luster dimmed in the 1980s with the revelations of his mistresses, his flirtations with organized crime, and the concealment of his shaky medical history. No such debunking has even remotely occurred with Reagan—which in itself is a phenomenon worth examining. Someone could write one heck of a doctoral dissertation on the Reagan cult of personality that endures to this day in America).
But when it all ended for Reagan in 1989 there emerged a schism in the Republican Party: the G.O.P. became half-Reagan and half-Bush. The Bush wing triumphed in 1988 and in 2000 and 2004 but with disastrous results for the country (and the party itself). The failures of George H.W. Bush led conservatives to sit on their hands in 1992 and allow Bill Clinton to win the Presidency. The even greater failures of George W. Bush led to Barack Obama’s overwhelming win in 2008.
Among the many failures of the George W. Bush Presidency was Bush’s naked attempt at supplanting Ronald Reagan as the chief demigod of American conservatism. When you look at the younger Bush Administration’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives it is painfully obvious that Bush strove—and failed—to topple Reagan from his plinth.
The fact that Bush’s tax cuts were larger than Reagan’s; the fact that Bush was more ardent at imposing his social conservatism on America than Reagan did in the 1980s; the fact that his foreign policy was infinitely more muscular—and bloodier—than Reagan’s was in my mind a desperate attempt by Bush to pose himself as a greater Commander-in-Chief than Reagan was (which he wasn’t); all these acts are compelling evidence of Bush’s concealed intentions and the fact that Bush failed in his intent is borne out in the 2008 Republican Presidential race when all the G.O.P. candidates repeatedly invoked the spirit of the late Ronald Reagan instead of the spirit of George W. Bush—a rather fitting repudiation if there ever was one.
The 1996 candidacy of Bob Dole was not a triumph of the Reagan wing of the party. Although Dole would probably disagree with this, his nomination in 1996 was the last gasp of the old Eisenhower-Nixon-Ford wing of the G.O.P. that was supplanted by Reagan in 1980. John McCain’s failed presidential bid in 2000 and his successful nomination in 2008 were part of the Reagan wing’s struggle with the Bush wing for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.
Today the G.O.P. is no longer half-Reagan half-Bush. The Party has become a three-way dance between the Reagan, Bush, and the Tea Party faction that has now come to fore. This fragmentation bodes ill for the G.O.P. despite its recapture of the House last November. One of the major reasons why Ronald Reagan triumphed politically in the 1980s was due to the boundless faith and discipline of his followers. That faith and discipline was in response to Reagan’s personal faith, loyalty, and commitment to the Republican Party as a whole and its conservative ideals. Under Ronald Reagan the G.O.P. was a singular, committed, effective monolithic presence. When Reagan yielded the Presidency in 1989 that discipline and faith was frittered away by the actions, inactions, and selfishness of his successors.
If Reagan were alive today I suspect he would look askance and have private reservations about the lack of discipline shown by the Tea Party faction and the lack of cohesion within the G.O.P. itself.
As of today the mantle of Ronald Reagan remains……….unclaimed and I suspect that it will always be so.
Even though there will be a future Republican President who will invoke the spirit of Ronald Reagan I suspect that the next Republican President will not come from the Reagan or the Bush or the Tea Party factions of the party but will instead unify and remake the Party in his or her own image (just like Reagan did in 1980).
In short not a return to 1980 but instead a new beginning for a new conservatism in 21st century America. And yet the question that remains is whether a new conservatism and a new conservative President will be able to overcome the problems and dilemmas that sap our economic, spiritual, and moral resources?
That is a question that can only be answered by time itself and by the next conservative President who occupies the Oval Office.