Bill Kristol and our own Lawrence Henry have argued that conservatives are allowing their nostalgia for Ronald Reagan to blind them to the virtues of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates. It is time, they each say in their own way, to Move On.
On their point that there will never be another Reagan, they are indisputably right. It is equally true that we may hobble ourselves by holding all future candidates to the standard of a mythologized version of Reagan. But I still think Reagan has much to teach us about how to use old conservative principles and ideas to form new policies that address current problems. I think this approach is still superior in the long run to trimming and attemptoing to come up with more moderate or less expensive versions of liberalism.
That said, there is a type of Reagan nostalgia that I think is harmful to the right and even Kristol succumbs to it. Why are these the candidates that “we,” meaning conservatives, have? Reagan got conservatives accustomed to viewing the titular head of the Republican Party as the de facto leader of the conservative movement. I think in the present climate, with the majority of the current candidates, that is a counterproductive view. Why not hold a presidential nominee or even president who is not One of Us at arm’s length? That doesn’t mean voting for Hillary, it just means keeping a critical distance.
If conservatives view the Republican candidate as someone who might possibly be better than the Democrat without adopting them as the leader of the movement, we will have more flexibility in developing policies for the next century rather than defending whatever comes out of the White House. Such an approach might also make the litmus tests seem less urgent, because the person who wins the nomination will not determine the composition or priorities of the conservative movement. If we don’t have a Reagan, why pretend that we do?