By almost any measure, Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign marked the height of the modern conservative movement in America. In an unparalleled political landslide, Reagan won 49 of 50 states in the Electoral College, defeating Walter Mondale by more than 16 million votes. Along with overwhelming support among his own party base, Reagan won 64% of independent voters and an astonishing 26% of Democrats.ƒ
While Reagan himself was a staunch and principled conservative, his political success was premised less on the triumph of ideology than on his ability to speak to voters in a way that transcended the pettiness of party politics. It was this very thing for which Reagan himself hoped to be remembered, noting that, “Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts.”
Moreover, while Reagan’s legislative victories were many (and transformative), they were achieved largely through bipartisan compromises. It’s not that politics in the 1980s weren’t contentious; they were every bit as heated and impassioned as ours are today. Still, most of Reagan’s conservative agenda was passed through a Democratically controlled House of Representatives, thanks in large part to his legendary give-and-take relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat.
Much has changed in the 40 years since then. While Republicans have enjoyed relative success in presidential politics during that time, they have fallen woefully short of recreating the broad bipartisan coalition that undergirded Reagan’s presidency.
Republican candidates have won the popular vote only once in the last eight presidential elections, with George W. Bush (2000) and Donald Trump (2016) both losing the popular vote in narrow Electoral College victories. And in that time, the GOP’s most significant policy achievements have been largely dependent on partisan majorities in Congress.
Indeed, America’s conservative movement found its most compelling expression in Ronald Reagan’s optimism and goodwill, but few see today’s Republican Party in the same light. In a recent survey conducted at the University of South Florida, I asked a representative sample of 600 Floridians to share their thoughts and opinions about both the Democratic and Republican parties. Among the survey’s most significant findings was a prevailing sense that the GOP has lost touch with the most foundational elements of Ronald Reagan’s message and appeal.
Nearly 40% of respondents felt that Republican Party leaders are “mostly pessimistic” when they talk about America’s future (almost 10 percentage points higher than those who said the same about Democrats). Less than half (44%) agreed that “the Republican Party is welcoming to people of all backgrounds,” and nearly a third of Floridians (30%) said that “the Republican Party represents the values of only its most extreme voters” (compared with 23% who said the same about Democrats).
Perhaps most alarmingly, nearly two-thirds (62%) of Republican voters said that when they think about our country’s future, they “worry that our best years are behind us.” This is 10 percentage points higher than Democrats who said the same, and a far cry from Ronald Reagan’s vision of “morning in America.”
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Don’t get me wrong: Things aren’t great for Democrats either. Neither party was viewed favorably by a majority of respondents, but the numbers were somewhat more troubling for Republicans. The party of Ronald Reagan has grown pessimistic about America’s future, and many voters now see the GOP as a “small-tent” party, increasingly beholden to its most extreme interests. In short, Republicans seem to have reached an inflection point; “a time for choosing,” as Ronald Reagan might say.
This brings us invariably to the question of Donald Trump. While many have sought to draw misguided parallels between the two men, one thing is increasingly clear: Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan. Since becoming the de facto leader of the GOP in 2016, Trump has failed to reestablish anything approaching the Reagan coalition, losing the popular vote in both of his White House bids.
Where Ronald Reagan once transcended the dividing lines of political ideology, Donald Trump seems to have hardened them. Where Ronald Reagan once appealed to our best hopes, Donald Trump has incited our worst fears. And where Ronald Reagan once expanded the appeal of conservative ideals, Donald Trump has shrunk the party tent. Today, principled conservatives find themselves exiled from the GOP simply for disagreeing with the former president (just ask Liz Cheney).
At this point, not even the most fervent of Trump’s supporters can deny that he has failed where Ronald Reagan succeeded.
While a well-organized political machine may afford Republicans some intermittent electoral victories in the short term, Donald Trump’s leadership of the party seems to be doing the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s. To see that it will spell the undoing of America’s conservative movement for a generation (or more) to come, look no further than the GOP’s abysmal favorability among young Americans under Donald Trump.
Among 18– to 24-year-old respondents, the GOP trailed the Democratic Party in favorability by 13 percentage points (44% to 31%). When asked if Republican Party leaders speak in a way that inspires them, 60% of young respondents disagreed, and 65% said that they don’t feel the GOP is “welcoming to people of all backgrounds.”
And so, a time for choosing.
Over the next two years — beginning with this November’s midterm elections — Republican leaders will have one last chance to decide: are they the party of Reagan, or the party of Trump. The answer matters for all of us, regardless of how you feel about conservative values or Ronald Reagan’s legacy.
The truth is that no matter how ideological you may be, we need healthy Democratic and Republican parties. America needs “bleeding heart liberals” who remind us to look out and care for the vulnerable and disaffected. And we need “common sense conservatives” to remind us that money doesn’t grow on trees.
Yes, of course, I’m oversimplifying both sides to make a point, but the point stands. We need healthy, competing political parties to represent the breadth of our needs, values and perspectives as a people. And we need them to negotiate policy outcomes on our behalf — to do so in good faith, with an occasional dose of high-minded optimism to energize and inspire the “better angels of our nature.”
Perhaps — as a child of the “Reagan Revolution” — I can leave you with some of that. This past summer I got restless, so I loaded up my F-150 and drove it from Tampa to Los Angeles, then up to Jackson Hole, and all the way home. I spent six weeks on the road, with old friends and new ones, and I was privileged to visit some of the most beautiful and symbolic places in the United States.
Very few of those experiences moved me more than the day I spent in the Simi Valley, at Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Library. For all of the facility’s amazing history — including Air Force One and a piece of the Berlin Wall — it was a statue of Ronald and Nancy Reagan near the entrance of the exhibit that touched me the most.
Engraved behind their likeness were these words: “America’s best days are yet to come. Our proudest moments are yet to be. Our most glorious achievements are just ahead”. — Ronald Reagan.
It’s time for Republicans to choose: the party of Reagan, or the party of Trump. This shouldn’t be a hard choice.
Stephen Neely is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida.