With the Republicans scrambling to find a Conservative True Believer to succeed Bush, I've been thinking more about Reagan and his relation to George W. Bush. It's almost as if W. were Reagan returned both as tragedy and farce. He's certainly made Reagan, in retrospect, look better (as he's made his father look quite fantastic by comparison). Overall, I would say W.'s attempt to enact Reagan's legacy was like someone with no sense of rhythm banging really really hard on a drum to hide his deficiencies.
On Reagan, in spite of my great antipathy for him while I was in high school, the following could be said honestly and positively:
- His presidency was a time of general economic prosperity and peace--except for what appear to have been mostly minor skirmishes
- The Cold War ended without major bloodshed
On the other hand, the failures of the era were mostly behind the stage:
- Economic inequality rose
- The deficit grew vast, and was only closed up by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton
- Some of the "America is so strong now" posturing hid dishonest maneuvering (for example, Carter was so widely assailed for the hostage crisis while Reagan actually negotiated for hostages)
- Objectionable judicial nominees (Bork), an attourney general who was a pig (Meese), labor losing power, etc.
Although George H.W. Bush is largely thought to have been limited to 1 term by his breaking his "no new taxes" pledge, I think that's revisionist.
I think in reality, it was Pat Buchanan's speech at the Republican convention in 1992, calling for a "culture war", that alienated Republican moderates, the kind who just wanted peace and prosperity and were a little more sober-headed and less wild than Democrats seemed to be.
I remember working for Clinton that election and seeing the campaign office filled with ex-Republicans turned off by Buchanan's right-wing rhetoric.
Lots of Republican voters value morality, and unfortunately that's in their minds kind of coded up with lots of aspects that are really extraneous to true morality. It often seems limited to shielding their children from adult content, or castigating those who don't live in traditional monogamous heterosexual relationships, and not about truth and honesty and trying to understand and respect others. It often seemed curled up with warm feelings about living up to one's own religion.
It's troubling to see a book like that by Dinesh D'Souza, who used to get his culture war on fighting against multiculturalism in academia (which did have a faddish aspect in the mid '80s.) Now he seems to be arguing that the Islamic radicals who attacked the U.S. on 9/11/2001 were fighting against our permissive cultural values (not foreign policy such as troops in Saudi Arabia, Palestinian problems, etc.) and that conservatives should join this fight (sort of to appease the terrorists, I gather.)
For one, of course, permissiveness is relative--in the 1950s Elvis shaking his booty on TV was quite shocking. Internally, if one has a problem with the culture, one shouldn't work to appease murderers from outside the society. (Yeah, I might have a problem with the culture too, but not as a matter for legislation so much as (1) increasing education, and (2) increasing employment opportunities might increase quality of stuff--I'm not offended by "vulgarity" and those who are can always look away...)
I tend to be a relativist who on the contrary feels that relativism is morality, morality is fundamentally not imposing one's will on others. Perhaps the few conservatives left who really do have some intellectual cred--and who do not just like to paint pictures of strawman opponents as sloganeers--view themselves more as the successors of the Enlightenment, and view that time as having a stricter heierarchy of values... On the contrary, I'm influenced by developments such as non-Euclidian geometry--ideas from the last few centuries that have opened minds to how much our traditional culture closed off.