Guest Column
Is it the party of Reagan or the party of Trump? A time for choosing as the clock ticks. | Column
An inability of Republican leaders (and voters) to “read the room” bears little resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s record of pragmatic compromise.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig outside 10 Downing Street during a state visit to London, June 9, 1982.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig outside 10 Downing Street during a state visit to London, June 9, 1982. [ FOX PHOTOS | Getty Images North America ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

Ahead of last year’s midterm elections, I suggested to you on this page that Republicans had two years left to decide: Are they the party of Ronald Reagan, or the party of Donald Trump? A party of grounded conservative principles, advanced by Reagan’s high-minded optimism and penchant for compromise? Or a party of authoritarian, populist impulses, motivated by Trump’s dark and pessimistic vision of America as “a nation in decline”?

USF professor Stephen Neely
USF professor Stephen Neely [ File photo ]

For those of us who hoped that Republican voters would choose the former, recent months have offered little cause for optimism. Sen. Tim Scott’s withdrawal from the presidential primary earlier this month — coupled with polling data collected over the past year — suggest that many GOP voters are steering further into Trump’s populist skid, despite a growing record of electoral defeats.

Sen. Scott’s early and abrupt exit from the primary was a sad reminder of how far the GOP has strayed from Ronald Reagan’s guiding principles. While other candidates have struggled to distinguish themselves from Trump without alienating the party base, Scott stood out on several key points of contrast. More than any other candidate in the field, he embodied Ronald Reagan’s legacy, with a campaign message that echoed the promise of “Morning in America.”

On the campaign trail, Scott spoke optimistically of the opportunities that America had provided him, framing his campaign in terms of “freedom and hope and opportunity” while pushing back on Trump’s pessimistic message by asserting that America is a nation of opportunity, and “not a nation in decline.”

Moreover, unlike many of his fellow Republicans, Scott has historically exhibited a greater willingness to compromise with Democrats in the interest of policy reform. Still, Scott’s struggle to gain support in a primary race that Trump continues to dominate was always a bad omen for those of us who had hoped that the GOP would opt for a return to Reagan’s brand of principled conservativism and pragmatic compromise.

Indeed, in a survey conducted earlier this year at the University of South Florida, we found that Republican voters are largely dismissive of “compromise politics,” with nearly one-quarter (24%) saying that they would prefer to see Republicans achieve their policy goals without any compromise at all, while another 46% were willing to accept only small compromises with Democrats.

In the same survey, 27% of Republicans said that they were open to “equal” compromises between Democrats and Republicans, compared with a large plurality (44%) of Democrats.

The implications of these trends have been evident in Washington over recent months, as Republicans have struggled to coalesce around their own party leadership in Congress, while the party’s right flank has insisted on zero-compromise spending bills that stand no reasonable chance of being adopted into law.

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While it’s natural to prefer the advancement of one’s own values, the GOP’s reticence to engage in policy negotiations with Democrats comes at a time when nearly half of the American electorate identifies as “independent,” and voters have given Democrats control over both the Senate and the executive branch.

This inability of Republican leaders (and voters) to “read the room” bears little resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s record of pragmatic compromise. And yet, it was Reagan who successfully advanced conservative principles and was overwhelmingly reelected, while today’s rigidly uncompromising GOP has devolved into a reality TV sideshow, recognized primarily for its very public infighting and ineffectual governance.

Perhaps emboldened by President Joe Biden’s historically low approval ratings, Republicans have been surprisingly unmoved by a growing record of electoral defeats. Earlier this month, Democrat Andy Beshear was reelected as governor of Kentucky, defeating a Trump-endorsed candidate in the deeply red state that Trump himself carried by 26 points in 2020.

Simultaneously, Republican candidates and policies suffered surprising defeats in Virginia and Ohio, which followed fast on the heels of a shockingly poor performance by Trump-backed MAGA candidates in the 2022 midterm elections.

Nonetheless, the GOP’s remaining presidential candidates continue to tiptoe around Trump’s corrosive impact on the party, his brazen criminal activities and his lack of commitment to (much less articulation of) traditional conservative values.

Perhaps the most telling sign that Republican voters have lost their connection to Ronald Reagan’s message of “Morning in America” came last year, in a survey that I ran just ahead of the midterm elections. In it, I asked respondents to comment on America’s future, and whether they felt that our nation’s best days were behind us or yet to come.

Across the board, the responses were disheartening. The COVID-19 pandemic, rampant inflation and a decade of hyperpartisan politics had all clearly taken a toll on American voters, with a small majority (56%) saying they feared that “our best years are behind us.” But among Republican voters, this sentiment was decidedly worse. Nearly 62% of Republicans expressed this opinion, while only 1 in 4 (25%) felt that our best days were yet to come (a belief that Ronald Reagan held at the core of his being).

When I wrote you a year ago about the GOP’s “time for choosing,” I suggested that it should be easy for Republicans to choose between Ronald Reagan’s optimistic commitment to conservative ideals and Donald Trump’s pessimistic and disingenuous brand of authoritarian populism. I assumed that the contrast between Reagan’s unparalleled political success and Trump’s repeated electoral failures would be self-evident.

But judging by the past year, it seems that I was wrong. Instead, it appears increasingly clear that Republican voters have moved on from the values and virtues that once helped them carry 49 of 50 states in the Electoral College. For the past four years, this has been a losing strategy for the GOP; there’s little reason to believe that 2024 will be any different.

Stephen Neely is an associate professor in the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs, specializing in survey research and public opinion.