Thirty years ago, when the words “mainstream” and “media” were still largely redundant, a conventional political wisdom developed that the presidency was too large a responsibility for one man. Regardless of whether you happened to be a supporter or an opponent of Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president in 1980, it’s safe to say that by the time Reagan left the White House eight years later, that school of thought had largely evaporated.
The echoes of that same question are now being heard in California, as the next generation of political observers has now settled in agreement that our state’s problems have grown to such a degree that we can no longer be effectively governed. As the candidates for governor prepare for what promises to be a fairly desultory election season, this thesis of ungovernability rings of the same sort of defeatism that later became known as “malaise” in Washington in the late 1970’s. While it has become fairly predictable for Republican politicians to wrap themselves in the flag of Reagan, the pessimism that currently infects our body politic does present the same type of psychological challenge that the Gipper confronted in his first successful presidential campaign.
Those who least understand Reagan tend to point to his renowned optimism as the trigger that reinstilled confidence in the nation’s voters during his time in office. But optimism without substantive accomplishment is merely naivete. Just as critics of the current president dismiss Barack Obama’s election as a result of his rhetorical gifts, Reagan’s opponents always made the mistake of assuming that his popularity should be attributed only to his likability. But people didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan because of his attitude – they voted for him because they believed that lower taxes would lead to economic growth and that a strengthened military would reestablish the United States’ place in the world. California’s next governor can’t simply cheerlead, he or she must lay out a policy agenda that engenders enthusiasm in as way that slogans, soundbytes, and inspirational language can not.
At the time of the 1980 campaign, the national Democratic party was roughly halfway through a generation-long struggle to define itself as a post-Roosevelt political force. Some Democrats maintained that the economic principles that FDR had articulated in the Great Depression were the defining ideological foundation of their party and should not be altered in even the slightest way. Others argued that the world had changed over the ensuing decades and that it was time to replace those principles with something new. It took the very politically savvy Bill Clinton to develop the correct answer, which was neither to abandon the precepts of Roosevelt nor to cling to them mindlessly, but rather to update them for a new set of societal challenges that had developed over the decades since Roosevelt had first moved into the White House.
We are currently witnessing the stirrings of a similar internal debate within the Republican Party to that which the Democrats fought throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. It has been more than three decades since Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski and Jack Kemp worked with Reagan to develop the economic agenda that led to his election and spurred a nation’s prosperity. No credible voice is making the case that Republicans should abandon Reagan’s economic principles, not at a time when the current Democratic president was elected by promising tax cuts for two-thirds of the American people and whose drop in public opinion polls is largely precipitated on the voters’ belief that their taxes will have to be raised to pay for health care reform. But perhaps there is an argument to be made that those priorities must also be updated, in order to deal with the challenges of an era in which the economic centerpiece of the country has moved from Detroit to Silicon Valley.
In the thirty years since candidate Reagan hit the campaign trail, we have moved from an economy based on manufacturing to one based on technology, from a localized to a global system of exchange, purchase and sales. Just as Reagan and his policy team recognized that the political and economic environment in which they lived had changed dramatically since the end of WWII, the challenge for the next generation of conservative thought leaders must confront the radically changed landscape that has emerged since 1980.
The common biographical thread that binds Tom Campbell, Steve Poizner, and Meg Whitman, of course, is their background in Silicon Valley. All three have spent their careers learning the intricacies of the New Economy, and all have decided that conservative policy prescriptions are the means through which to further the economic growth and prosperity created by the technology revolution. They may be better positioned than any Republican politicians in the country to lead this next stage of ideological evolution. If one of them is able to do so, he or she will not only provide the tools to fix California’s economy, but its embattled psyche as well. And how they intend to provide that roadmap is the most important question that can be asked of the candidates between now and June.