Both before and during his presidency, Ronald Reagan famously made reference to the “three legs of the conservative stool,” or variations of that description. As part of his political job (as opposed to his official duties as president), he saw it as his responsibility to help bind together the largest factions inside the Republican Party into a cohesive force that would be able to win elections and implement policy at the national level. The factions in question were generally defined as the fiscal or economic conservatives, the social or Christain conservatives, and the foreign interventionists or neocon hawks.
In these efforts, Reagan was remarkably effective, even as his health began to fade in his second term, generally out of the public eye. But the modern Republican Party has evolved quite a bit since the Gipper’s day and the balance of power has shifted in various directions over the years since he passed on. In some aspects, Reagan likely wouldn’t recognize parts of the GOP today, at least on a national level. These changes were ramped up toward warp speed with the ascension of Donald Trump, of course, but the process was already underway even before the 9/11 attacks dealt a body blow to the United States.
One of the most glaring changes I’ve observed over the years is the effective disappearance of the fiscal conservatives. There are still Republicans out there who talk about spending, the deficit, the national debt, and the impact this will have on coming generations. But with very few exceptions it’s been little more than talk since the late nineties. We have had Republican administrations who spent taxpayer dollars with abandon and ran up the debt as fast as any Democratic-led administrations, if not faster. They too printed magical money by the trillions, eventually weakening our economy and devaluing the dollar to the point where our currency may no longer be the international standard before long.
Granted, the Biden administration is rushing forward and setting unenviable records in this field as never seen before, but the Democrats did not do this singlehandedly. And we are not being honest actors if we pretend that they did. The very real dangers this presents to the next generation are just as real as they were in Reagan’s day. If anything, those threats are even more real and closer at hand today than ever. This risky business should offer a moment of opportunity to modern conservatives to return to policies of serious fiscal management and provide a stark example of the difference between the current GOP and modern liberalism.
Donald Trump is frequently blamed for the collapse of neoconservatism inside the Republican Party, and some of the old guard Republicans such as the Cheneys and the Bush clan clearly seem to resent him for this mightily to this day. But those impulses and the belief that we could cause freedom and democracy to flower anywhere in the world through military interventionist foreign policy were already standing on shakey ground by the time Barack Obama took a seat in the Oval Office. While the intent was noble, the fact is that democracy grows in fertile ground and not all cultures evolved in a way that would provide the right type of fertilizer to allow it to blossom. Afghanistan and Iraq should have taught us those hard lessons by now and, indeed, large segments of the GOP have clearly soured on those ideas. When Donald Trump came into office calling for an end to the Afghanistan experiment (now that Osama bin Laden was at the bottom of the ocean), he was simply driving another large nail into a coffin that was already almost sealed.
The Democrats haven’t exactly morphed into war hawks in the vacuum this shift created, but they still present an opposing vision. It’s one wherein America may not be militarily invading foreign countries, but we aren’t even leading diplomatically and spreading our influence or leading by example. A revitalized and unified Republican Party in the 21st century doesn’t need to be implanting democracy in Islamic societies that have no interest in it. It should be defending true democracy at home by combatting globalism. America can and should remain a leading voice in the world, reminding those that would seek to defeat us that we have the military might to make them regret it, even if we’re not constantly projecting it everywhere. This is another clear distinction that should be digestible for voters, including the moderate independents who are needed to win any national race. We can’t very well “save democracy in Taiwan” if we allow our own country to be slowly turned into Canada.
The most difficult wing of the GOP to fit into any sort of consistent mold is the segment made up largely of social or Christian conservatives. Back in Reagan’s day and even into the nineties, it was at least somewhat easier to pin down issues and pick the hills you wished to die on. You opposed abortion in all instances, participated in the March for Life, and prayed for the day Roe v. Wade would be overturned. Most Democrats at least had the decency to be somewhat embarrassed about pro-abortion politics. Prominent Democrats including Hillary Clinton felt obliged to say that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare.” You supported laws that would continue to define marriage in the traditional sense, being between one man and one woman for the purpose of conception and building strong families. Even Barack Obama wasn’t willing to endorse gay marriage until after he took office, preferring instead to propose social contracts for other marriages. You supported prayers in public schools and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Today the landscape has shifted dramatically and the Democratic Party has followed that shift enthusiastically and without apology. Liberals openly march in support of abortions up until the date of birth if not beyond. To the extent that they have any interest in traditional marriage, they want no restrictions on the practice with the possible exception of very young children. And in both of these areas, they have been remarkably effective in shifting public opinion. One poll after another has revealed that daunting majorities support same-sex marriage and plenty of other people simply don’t care about it one way or the other. To see how the country views abortion, at least in the first trimester, look no further than the recent voting in Kansas. This isn’t meant to imply that any conservatives need to abandon their views and beliefs to have a place in the GOP today. Far from it. But it’s also appropriate to suggest that the party platform needs to take some of these more recent realities into account if the conservative coalition is to stand.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other subjects of debate where social and Christain conservatives have important points to make and messages that could likely resonate across traditional party and ideological lines. New types of insanity have been sweeping the liberal legions across the nation, many of them dealing with the so-called transgender revolution that has been unfolding before our eyes. The devastating effects that misguided medical procedures and public school indoctrination are having on children is obvious. The undermining of girls’ and women’s collegiate and professional sports is equally clear. These are important issues that should be clear to any of the sane individuals remaining among the unaffiliated moderates and even some inside the Democratic Party.
Can the current versions of all three of these conservative coalitions find common ground and put Reagan’s “stool” back on solid footing? Some might argue that it’s impossible. Others are claiming that Donald Trump is too divisive and that he is tearing the conservative movement apart. I would disagree with both of these assertions. There is more than enough shared common interest in the subjects I’ve outlined here. And you don’t have to love or hate Donald Trump to be interested in seeing these underlying goals be achieved. Yes, there are some strident “never-Trumpers” who have clearly lost their minds and somehow remain in the public eye. But their numbers seem to be small. Most who are unhappy with the way the Trump presidency turned out will most likely rally behind Ron Desantis or some other Republican in 2024. But this isn’t about the name of the person at the top of the ticket. It’s about the values and policies that underly the broader movement.