The Reagan nostalgia, the fears of looming socialism, the paranoia about a shiftless 47 percent: They are all symptomatic of a party on the brink of transition rather than one incapable of change. Republicans seem to be clinging to the past mostly because their leaders haven’t shown them what they should stand for in the present.
There could be something to this, but I’m skeptical. The “paranoia” (to use Douthat’s word) over the number of people not paying federal income tax isn’t an example of “clinging to the past,” but instead represents a very contemporary and bizarre reaction to the success of past Republican tax policy. It is a response to the supposed “problem” that lower-income Americans aren’t paying enough of their earnings to the government. This is a problem only for those who think that the federal government should have a larger claim on all Americans’ income than it does. Though he has belatedly renounced this view, Romney obviously catered to its adherents not long ago when he thought it would be useful.
Reagan nostalgia continues be a distraction for Republicans, but after looking back at most of what has passed for Republican leadership in the last quarter century it’s not hard to see why. Many Republicans are guilty of indulging in this nostalgia, but there has perhaps been no candidate more fawning in his reliance on conservative mythology surrounding Reagan than Romney. No candidate has gone to the well of anti-Carter rhetoric as much as Romney since the ’80s. Even though half the population can’t even remember the Carter Presidency, Romney has pushed the Obama-Carter comparison more than anyone, and along the way he has been making the implicit comparison of himself to Reagan. This is someone whose main idea on trade policy is the “Reagan Economic Zone”. He endlessly repeats the phrase “peace through strength” without showing much interest in the first part of that formulation. Romney doesn’t cling to this because others haven’t shown him the way. He does it because he doesn’t have the credibility or the ideas to leave it behind.
Romney has likewise catered to “fears of looming socialism” with his constant railing against the evils of “Europe” and administration goals of making the U.S. more like “Europe” when it is clear that Romney doesn’t understand or pretends not to understand what has been happening in Europe. He just did this again on Wednesday with his claim that he didn’t want to go down “the path of Spain,” which in his mind means continued deficit spending. This characterization of what the “path of Spain” has been couldn’t be more misleading. As Scott Galupo has pointed out before, beating up on Spain over its fiscal policy in this way makes no sense:
The country was running budget surpluses before the Eurozone’s financial crisis began. Spain is not suffering because of big-government profligacy, but rather because it is party to an ill-conceived transnational currency.
Romney’s Europe-bashing isn’t exactly old, but it’s also just a holdover from his first presidential campaign. If the Republican Party is capable of change, Romney has shown no interest in encouraging it to do so. It’s strangely fitting that the one so deservedly mocked as the “candidate of change” will be the least able to deliver it even if he wins.