Which leads to the third point. Part of the problem that the GOP has – part of how it got Trump, to flog another meme – is that it never quite got over winning in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform of accomplishing a number of things. Primarily, he had a mandate to get the economy growing, to tame inflation, and to bring tax rates down. People talk about the top rate of 70% in 1981, but they forget that a couple making $29,900 (about $85,000 in today’s dollars) found themselves in the 37% top tax bracket. That is roughly the top tax bracket Barack Obama established in 2013, but it was limited to couples making $450,000. Additionally, these brackets were not indexed for inflation, so more and more people found themselves paying very high rates. Other goals included slowing the brakes on social change and defeating the Soviet Union.
By the time Bill Clinton was elected, most of these changes had been integrated into American society and even into the Democratic Party platform. The goal of the Federal Reserve was seen as primarily fighting inflation (Clinton renominated Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman), the Soviet Union was defeated and Clinton adopted a relatively hawkish foreign policy for a Democrat, and crucially, our tax debates were over whether the top rate should be 35% or 39.6%, while low tax rates for the middle class were viewed as sacrosanct. Social liberalism rebranded itself from a liberationist doctrine to one that emphasized its continuities with longstanding middle-class values (“hate is not a family value”; “abortion should be safe, legal and rare”).
Yet during this time, the Republican Party did not evolve. It became a bit of a running joke that the party’s solution for every societal ill was a tax cut. With Democrats accepting low taxes for the middle class, Republicans were left arguing that lower top rates for the wealthy would stimulate growth and, implausibly, would not hurt revenues. Having curbed welfare as an entitlement under Clinton, Republicans were left pursuing less popular spending cuts to education, Medicare and Social Security.