It’s the 21st century. We’ve got robots. Genetic engineering. Artificial intelligence. Hypersonic transportation. Nanotechnology. Human cloning. Hydrogen-powered cars. We’re even working on antigravity machines.
So where are the candidates of the Grand Old Party? They’re busy trying to be a movie actor born more than 100 years ago, in 1911. And a mediocre one, at that (he really didn’t make a smooth transition from radio to those newfangled “talkies”).
Sure, that “Bedtime For Bonzo” guy turned out to be Ronald Reagan, and sure, THAT Ronald Reagan (not the Democrat he was in the 1950s) turned out to be a pretty darned good president. But that, people, was 30-some years ago. Back then, a Macintosh was an apple, not an Apple. Those on the cutting edge of technology were using that dynamic new communication device — the pager. And the Internet was the mesh inside your swim trucks.
But, for some reason, the Republicans want to go back to the idyllic 1980s — acid-washed jeans, the Cold War, Milli Vanilli, “Dallas,” yuppies, the 10-year war in Afghanistan (that time it was the Soviets), political correctness, the Commodore 64, Swatch.
President Reagan was not a genius; he was a very smart man, but no genius. Still, he had lived through heyday of the ‘20s, the depression of the ‘30s, the Great War of the ‘40s, the Baby Boom of the ‘50s, the social turmoil of the ‘60s, the excess and explosion of the ‘70s. It doesn’t take a genius to learn the lessons of a half-century of just paying attention to the world. Reagan was smart enough to keep his pores open and absorb all that knowledge through a life filled with simple experience.
He was simply a man for his times, just as Margaret Thatcher was a woman (and every bit a man) for her times. America had just gone through the drama of a president resigning in shame, and along came this man, this virile, striking man, who saw America — still, despite its dramatic fall — as a shining city on a hill.
The image struck Americans in the heart; they saw it too, always. But Reagan didn’t say he was like anyone else, trying to be someone. Like few others before him, he was simply himself.
Some say this year’s GOP nomination battle is just a rerun of Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, running against arch-conservative Barry Goldwater. Of course, Rockefeller — that era’s Mitt Romney — lost the nomination to Goldwater — that era’s Ronald Reagan. Goldwater went on to lose in one the biggest landslides in history, but never mind that. Ideologues will fight that fight, damn the consequences to the party.
But the bigger issue is the soul of the Republican Party. George Bush the First got crushed in 1992 by a superliberal who proclaimed “I feel your pain.” When it came time for the GOP to post up a candidate against Bill Clinton, they came up with — Bob Dole? Beholden to the Christian coalition, he got crushed. George Bush the Second won as a “compassionate conservative,” but only because America was sick of Mr. Clinton — and especially his veep, Al Gore.
Mr. Bush turned out to be (surprise) a big-government Republican, spending every bit as wildly as any Democrat. Then, in 2008, the GOP, as in 1996, went with the next in line, posting up another liberal Republican (albeit a self-described “maverick”). The Establishment Republicans and the Socially Conservative Republicans and the Fiscally Conservative Republicans beat each other down until all that was left was the LCD Candidate (the least common denominator). Again, crushed.
Mr. Romney is that LCD Candidate, many argue. Despite the emergence of a powerful new conservative faction (the tea party), Republicans are about to embark on a trip they’ve taken several times in the past half-century. The party is more splintered than ever, thanks in part to Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth campaign.
Should Mr. Romney lose, all segments of the Republican Party and conservative movement will have to step back to reassess. They may simply decide then that the party is broken beyond repair, say goodbye to Mr. Reagan’s “big tent” and shatter into a hundred factions.
All over who really is the next Ronald Reagan. In 2012. You can’t make this stuff up.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.