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Your money or your life?

How post-Reagan Republicans suffer from an ‘empathy gap’

Chief Justice Warren Burger administers the oath of office to Ronald Reagan at the Capitol, on Jan. 20, 1981. AP Photo/Bob Daugherty

Your money or your life?

Henry Olsen now writes about politics for WORLD Magazine, but his latest book made our 2017 Book of the Year short list in the Understanding America category before he became our correspondent. In The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism, Olsen shows how Ronald Reagan developed a blue-collar conservatism based on his understanding of Americans who proceed paycheck to paycheck: They want a social safety net if the factory closes, the business goes bankrupt, and an injury leaves them unable to work.

Republicans have the opportunity to build a business–working class coalition, but the GOP may be blowing it by bowing to big funders rather than hard workers. In the following excerpt, courtesy of Broadside Books, Olsen calls for “a spirit that took the average American’s real life as its touchstone. … that made his or her well-being, not the devotion to abstract ideals, the final measure of success. It would be a spirit, I believe, that would finally convince a large plurality of Americans that conservative Republicanism cares more about life than money.” —Marvin Olasky

The Time Is Now: Reagan

Ronald Reagan left us in 2004 when his soul “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” His spirit, however, remains with us today. Just as Democrats wrapped themselves in the mantles of FDR and JFK for decades after their untimely deaths, so too do Republicans today all seek to run as Reagan’s true heir. Even President Obama understood that we live in Reagan’s shadow, telling his fellow Democrats that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America.”

Unfortunately, for most of the time since Reagan’s departure conservatives and Republicans have been wearing the wrong mantle. Conservatives and Republicans thought Reagan had given them a cookie-cutter formula—cut taxes, promote traditional morality, maintain a strong defense—rather than a deep conservative philosophy. They left the most crucial element of his appeal behind: the love of average Americans and the willingness to always use government to express their values. Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune.

The result was that the Republican presidential nominee has failed to win a majority of the popular vote in six of the last seven elections. That is the GOP’s worst showing since the party was created in 1854. It has won unprecedented strength in Congress and the states, but that has largely been a result of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party consistently pushing an updated version of the Henry Wallace, government-centric, 1948 Progressive Party agenda. Big Republican wins have always come when a Democratic president or nominee expresses those unpopular values. When Democrats try to challenge for FDR’s mantle by running even slightly toward the center, they have continued to win in the post-Reagan era.

The Republican and conservative failure is painfully evident in partisan self-identification polls. Republicans are not often aware of how badly and for how long they have trailed Democrats. Since the New Deal, more people have said they were Democrats than said they were Republicans in every single year except one. That margin has declined since Reagan’s day: Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a 45 to 23 percent margin in 1980, compared with a 36 to 33 percent margin in 2016. But despite Reagan’s best efforts, the Republican Party still suffers from its eighty-four-year-old brand problem.

Republicans and conservatives spoke his words, but they did not carry his tune.

The 2016 Republican deficit is not simply a case of California and New York drowning out “the real America.” Democrats outnumbered Republicans in each of the three key midwestern states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—that gave Donald Trump the presidency. Ronald Reagan sought to create a “New Republican Party,” but it is evident that his successors have failed to finish the job.

It’s not too hard to figure out why, either. As we saw in chapter 1, working-class voters did support Republicans in the pre–New Deal era when the GOP was the party that spoke for their values. But the Great Depression broke that bond. The party’s refusal to do everything in its power to mitigate the massive poverty that followed by reason of unemployment in the wake of the crash convinced the average American that the GOP cared more about the wealthy than it did about them. Republicans still fight against that image to this day.

The party’s problems are nicely summed up in a skit from the most popular comic in Reagan’s youth, Jack Benny. Benny’s shtick was that he played a miser who was always pinching pennies. In the skit, Benny is held up by a mugger who says, “Your money or your life!” Benny doesn’t answer at first, but growls when the mugger repeats the demand: “I’m thinking it over!”

Benny’s answer is hilarious because it is absurd. No rational person would prefer her money to her life. But too many Americans think that when the chips are down, Republicans and conservatives are like Benny: they care more about money than about life.

That perception becomes even worse when applied to government policy. Since government programs are paid for by taxes on wealthier people, many Americans think the GOP cares about rich people’s money than they do about their lives. No wonder they’re not Republicans! Party strategists often talk about how to surmount the various “gaps” the GOP faces. Republicans do much better among men than women—the “gender gap.” They do much better among whites than nonwhites—the “racial gap.” They do much better among married than among nonmarried voters—the “marriage gap.” But each of these gaps exists because of the elephant in the room that flows from the perception mentioned above. Each of the groups that Republicans do worse with wants something from government that it believes will help give it a hand up in life, something Republicans usually oppose.

The Republican Party does not suffer from a gender gap, a racial gap, or a marriage gap. It suffers from an empathy gap.

Ronald Reagan always worked to show what he felt, genuine empathy for the problems of everyday life that people faced. He always empathized with “the forgotten American,” and when he learned that some groups of people needed a little extra help to achieve the American promise, he changed his mind and gave it to them. Not all Americans were convinced he loved them, but enough were that he won their trust to change America.

Ronald Reagan always worked to show what he felt, genuine empathy for the problems of everyday life that people faced.

This chapter is the story of how the conservative movement and the Republican Party lost its way after Reagan left office and how it can find its way back. It’s the story of a movement that thought Reagan was just a more attractive version of Goldwater and thought it could get on with the job of cutting down the New Deal. It’s the story of an establishment party that never thought it needed to make room at the table for the working person, a party that thought those voters could simply be bought off with God and guns. It’s the story of a party that owes its post-2008 resurgence to the political obtuseness of President Obama, who thought his and his party’s return to power was a mandate to push through a modern version of the Henry Wallace agenda. And it’s the story of a party that owes the presidency to the most unlikely of men, Donald Trump, who has no deep philosophy but whose vision of an energetic government dedicated to the values of the working person brought the Reagan Democrat temporarily back into the fold.

This chapter is ultimately about something much more. It’s about how we can finally realize our vision of making American conservatism the governing heart and soul of our land. No one can know for sure how Ronald Reagan would have addressed today’s problems: his willingness to change tactical course in the face of new facts makes it impossible to know for sure what he would do today about taxes or trade. But he left a clear enough legacy behind that we can know the spirit with which he would approach those problems.

It would be a spirit that looked beyond left or right and toward up or down. It would be a spirit that took the average American’s real life as its touchstone, and it would be one that made his or her well-being, not the devotion to abstract ideals, the final measure of success. It would be a spirit, I believe, that would finally convince a large plurality of Americans that conservative Republicanism cares more about life than money. It would be a spirit that would end the party’s eighty-four-year status as the second party in American life and give us the political power to begin the world anew.

Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan in 1980 was simple yet profound: “The Time Is Now: Reagan.” That is as true today as it was back then.

The drift away from Reagan started with his successor, George H. W. Bush. Reagan’s loyal vice president campaigned as a populist in the Reaganite tradition. Although he started well behind the Democratic candidate, Michael Dukakis, by Election Day Bush was easily the victor. He received over 53 percent of the popular vote and won the Electoral College by a thundering 426–111 margin. He carried Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania as well as the entire South except heavily unionized West Virginia. Bush largely reconstructed the Reagan coalition of traditional business Republicans, southern whites, and blue-collar ethnic midwestern and northeastern Democrats.

What no one knew then was that Bush would be the last Republican to carry Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio in one election, and the last Republican to win over 300 Electoral College votes, until Donald Trump twenty-eight years later.

Pundits were so impressed with Bush’s win that they started to speak of a “Republican lock” on the Electoral College. But that lock existed only as long as the Republicans held the key. By 1992 Democrat Bill Clinton had picked the lock because he, not Bush, understood that the American voter wanted a president to continue to interpret FDR’s legacy.

Republicans proclaimed they were following Reagan, when they were actually ignoring key elements of his thought.

Clinton became the most vocal champion of the “New Democrats.” They often were people who had supported Humphrey or Scoop Jackson in fights with Democratic progressives, and they meant to offer a modern version of Harry Truman’s interpretation of FDR’s legacy. Decried by many progressives as conservatives in Democratic clothing, New Democrats nonetheless attracted working-class Democrats back to the party and elected Clinton in 1992. Bush lost six states in the South and every state in the Midwest except rock-ribbed-Republican Indiana to the young, centrist Democrat. The Reagan Democrats had gone home to their party.

Clinton nearly gave back his advantage by governing more from the left than he had campaigned. He tried to push a comprehensive national health care bill through Congress, got the Democratic-controlled Congress to raise taxes, and let welfare reform proposals languish. Many blue-collar Democrats felt they had been abandoned, and Republicans rode anger over Clinton’s move to the left to gain fifty-four seats in the House, giving them control for the first time in forty years and making the firebrand Newt Gingrich Speaker of the House. The GOP also gained control of the Senate for the first time since 1986 and won a net ten new governorships. Many of the seats lost were in blue-collar and rural territory, the sort of places that had been Democratic congressional mainstays since the New Deal. Republicans looked like they were back.

Just as Clinton had misread his victory as an endorsement of the Left, however, the congressional Republicans misread their victory as an endorsement of the Right. They came out of the box clamoring for big budget cuts in entitlements and the elimination of a number of cabinet departments. Clinton shrewdly cast aside the progressive agenda, and wrapped himself in FDR’s mantle in his 1995 State of the Union address. He portrayed himself as the protector of cherished programs—Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment—while working to cut fat in government through his Reinventing Government initiative. When Republicans shut the government down in the winter of 1995 rather than agree to reduce their proposals, Clinton waged a public relations campaign to recast himself. He soon forced them to back down, and Democrats regained their traditional advantage in partisan identification polls.

Republicans proclaimed they were following Reagan, when they were actually ignoring key elements of his thought. “Human nature resists change,” Reagan had told conservatives in 1964, “and it bends over backward to resist radical change.” But these conservatives wanted nothing but radical change. Republican revolutionaries had vastly overestimated the public’s desire to cut valuable programs in the name of saving money. While many polls showed that majorities of Americans disliked the budget deficit, wanted to cut spending rather than hike taxes, and wanted smaller government over large government, when the chips were down they would not support saving money over saving lives.

The failed Republican assault on the federal budget reinforced the long-held view that Republicans—and now conservatives—cared more about their money than your life. Faced with a choice between a Congress they didn’t trust and a president they didn’t trust, voters in 1996 made the sensible choice and split the difference. They reelected the Republican Congress while also reelecting Bill Clinton by a comfortable margin over Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. Clinton won by 49–41 percent in the popular vote and with a 379–159 margin in the Electoral College. Clinton had again carried six southern states and every state in the Midwest except Indiana. He had also carried previously GOP-leaning California, New Jersey, and Connecticut twice. The Republican lock had not only been picked, it had been completely shattered.

The Republican lock had not only been picked, it had been completely shattered.

The two-term Texas governor George W. Bush, the son of George Herbert Walker Bush, stepped up in 2000 to try to recapture the center for the GOP. “W,” as he became known, tried to run as, one adviser once told me, “not Clinton and not Gingrich.” Running as a “uniter, not a divider” and a “reformer with results,” Bush tried to address the Republican Party’s long-standing empathy gap with his faith-influenced “compassionate conservatism.”

Bush won, but only because of a left split between the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, and the Green Party’s nominee Ralph Nader. Bush’s southern background and unabashed invocation of his evangelical Christian faith (he said in one debate that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher) was music to these voters’ ears. Bush won all seven southern or border states that Clinton had carried in 1996, and in each the left-wing (Democratic + Green) share of the vote was down.

The Midwest, however, did not cotton to Bush. These states have fewer evangelical Christians than the southern and border states, and even those that are evangelical tend to have larger shares of German, Scandinavian, or Dutch rather than British heritage. Bush lost almost all the midwestern states Clinton had carried in 1996, and the share of the vote for the Left (Gore and Nader) went up in each state. Bush carried Ohio, the least Democratic and most evangelical of these states, but even there the share of the combined vote for the Left or the center Left went up, not down.

Bush lost the nationwide popular vote, receiving only 47.9 percent. He won a narrow Electoral College victory, 271–267, only because enough progressives backed Nader to throw New Hampshire and Florida to Bush. The combined Gore-plus-Nader vote was over 50.5 percent in each state. Even then Bush required a miracle, as he won Florida’s 25 electoral votes by only 537 votes out of nearly six million cast. But for the infamous “butterfly ballot,” a poorly designed ballot in an elderly and heavily Democratic area that caused thousands of Democrats to inadvertently spoil their ballot or vote for the Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan, Gore would have won Florida and with it the presidency.

Republicans did even more poorly down ballot. The GOP lost another two seats in the House, giving it a razor thin 222–213 advantage. It lost four seats in the Senate, making the chamber a 50–50 tie where control was decided only by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney. Twelve years after Reagan left the White House, his New Republican Party was still struggling to unite all the various strands of conservative and nonprogressives under one big tent.

From The Working-Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism by Henry Olsen. Published by Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. © 2017. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Broadside Books

Henry Olsen Peter Holden Photography

Henry Olsen Henry is a former WORLD correspondent.


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