With Barack Obama’s polling numbers dropping rapidly as his policies get exposed as radical and expensive changes to the US, some have begun wondering if Obama can perform a miracle by resuscitating the moribund Reagan coalition of conservatives and independents. Gregg Mueller, a former senior aide to Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan and now president CRC Public Relations, argues that Obama’s slide towards Carterism at home and abroad will do just that. However, Mueller forgets that one key piece is missing:
His approval ratings have tanked in a very short period of time. The trillions in spending he has proposed, and his plans for a government takeover of health care have backfired and the administration is clearly shell shocked. Their recourse has been to attack protesters, launch verbal attacks on those that disagree with them and ignore the hundreds of thousands, many new to politics, who marched on Washington this past Saturday. This has also led to a growing number of Independents who supported or “leaned-Obama Democrat” to move away from support and questioning what is happening — this was not what they had in mind when they voted for change.
Many conservatives have started to invoke President Carter when describing Obama’s domestic agenda. Then he appeared to come to Obama’s aid suggesting that the “you lie” comments made by Representative Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) were race based, igniting a national debate over racism after the country just elected the first African American president. Not so presidential from a former President. On the heels of Carter’s Obama defense, President Obama seems to be headed more and more in a Jimmy Carter direction. The President’s announcement that he will walk back support for a defense shield in Europe for Poland and Czechoslovakia has shocked the world. Reports suggest that the President is weaning the free world’s defenses to appease Russia so that they can help pressure Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I do not understand the logic — appease Russia because the administration’s appeasement of Iran is not working? Is President Obama becoming Jimmy Carter on steroids? Is the President’s foreign policy amounting to an Obama Appeasement Doctrine?
After this massive collapse of will in eastern Europe, I’d call Obama a Carter who desperately needs steroids, but Mueller’s point is clear. For those of us who lived through the Carter presidency, it looks depressingly familiar. High spending, government control of the economy (especially on energy), and clear signs of retreat abroad — it looks much more like Jimmy Carter won his second term of office 28 years after getting booted by the American electorate. The entire decade turned into a morass of malaise, a cesspool of economic stagnation, and with Carter’s election, a season of American humiliation abroad.
Mueller correctly notes that this left America hungering mightily for change and hope, and Ronald Reagan delivered both in his election campaign in 1980. The conservative movement had the opportunity to be given a chance to lead for the first time in decades, at least in the executive branch. Reagan’s sunny optimism and his years-long application of conservative principles in California — hardly a conservative state even at that time — allowed Reagan to form a coalition that only broke down twelve years later.
But could there have been a Reagan coalition without Reagan? As bad as Carter was, few other Republicans at the time could have unseated him, even with the anger and desperation felt in the US. Reagan himself beat Carter by nine points in the popular vote, although he carried 44 states to Carter’s 6 and DC. Reagan built himself into a formidable candidate by spending years on the speaking circuit discussing politics and philosophy, and then eight years as governor adhering to conservative values. Reagan was no unknown quantity when he led his coalition to power in 1980; people knew exactly what Reagan would do as President.
Do we have a Reagan now, someone who led philosophically as well as reliably in office as a conservative? Do we have a potential candidate of that stature who can not only bring together a coalition but discipline it to focus on a few core values, primarily fiscal discipline and national security, which will expand that coalition to its largest possible volume? It took a Carter to put a Reagan in office, but we had to have Reagan ready to go.
In 2010 and 2012, we will have a big opportunity to have that kind of coalition ride to the rescue, but we had better have a candidate with the experience and credibility in office and activism to give it that kind of strength.