Over the past year, much ink has been spilled analyzing the GOP’s 2012 presidential primary debates. Their number, length, format and locations have been scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb, leading to a host of different conclusions about their effectiveness. One thing that cannot be denied is this: that the legacy of Ronald Reagan played as central a role in the Republican primary as that of any other politician in history.
It was as if the candidates couldn’t get enough of Reagan fever, whether it was Newt Gingrich gloating about his endorsement by Michael Reagan, Ronald’s son, or Rick Santorum highlighting his hawkish foreign policy and sterling social conservatism, both trademarks of Reagan’s governing philosophy. In these debates, the candidates left the unmistakable impression that the GOP is still the party of Reagan. In other words, the party of the 1980s.
I’m not one to criticize the policies of Reagan, who was undoubtedly one of the best presidents of the twentieth century and also America’s first Buckley-conservative President. Reagan turned back the tide of communism and brought hope and pride back to a country in dire need of both. Yet the fact remains that no American citizen under the age of 45 has ever stepped into a ballot box to vote for Reagan-Bush, meaning that calls to reminisce on the days of Reagan fail to connect with over half of the population.
Perhaps it is time to step out of the shadow of the Gipper. Perhaps it is time to redefine the policies voters associate with conservatism. And perhaps it is time for Republicans to build a new majority — one that spans divisions of race, gender and income.
The first question conservatives must ask themselves is this: “Does our platform still solve the problems of today?” When Reagan was elected in 1980, he pledged to fight the spread of communism and curb the pervasive rise of drug use and crime. Today, global communism is but an afterthought, while crime and drug use are both in decline. To assume, then, that a large, expensive military and mandatory minimum sentences are still necessary is not only bad policy, but bad politics as well.
Instead of fighting the battles of the 1980s, we must adapt to the ever-changing problems that America faces by looking forward, not backward. Reagan never asked, “What would Eisenhower do?” He knew that 30-year-old solutions couldn’t fix one-week-old problems, and that the American people deserve a government whose first priority is making lives better — not appealing to an aging generation.
THE EDITORS: Quite the opposite.
Thankfully, conservatism is not confined to one set of policies and ideas; rather, it is a framework from which we build our opinions. Conservatives must not feel trapped by the conventional wisdom of the 1980s, but rather strive for new, innovative solutions to the problems facing the United States. This — working to improve the life of every American — is Reagan’s true legacy, and acting on it will not only honor his work but also thrust conservatism forward into the next generation, ensuring that its principles stand for many years to come.
—Davis Parker is a junior studying economics, political science and mathematics