Presaging what will surely be a flood of books about the 2016 campaign is Matt Lewis’s Too Dumb to Fail, equal parts polemic and screed by a card-carrying member of the conservative media establishment (Lewis is an editor of The Daily Caller and regularly appears on “the shows”). Lewis’s thesis is simple - the ideas that undergirded the so-called “Reagan Revolution” have been jettisoned by the Republican Party, which needs to get back to being a party animated by the big, bold ideas that, according to Lewis, led to Reagan’s ascent.
While one cannot question Lewis’s conviction, he cherry picks information to suit his point of view. Perhaps this is simply my own political perspective, but if the first step in solving a problem is admitting its existence, readers will find little comfort here. It is not simply the pot shots Lewis takes at President Obama, Democrats, or the definite article “The Left,” it is the failure of his book to come to terms with some basic facts about Saint Ronnie.
While the hagiography embraces Reagan’s bumper sticker appeal - low taxes, less government, and a strong national defense - his record was not that simple. Yes, Reagan cut taxes in 1981, but he subsequently raised them - several times - during his time in office. His attempts to rein in the federal government barely moved the needle on the actual number of federal workers (Republicans would have to wait for some guy named Bill Clinton to arrive before a meaningful reduction occurred), and the massive military build-up was done on the government’s credit card, leading to swelling budget deficits that undermined any suggestion of fiscal restraint. And this is without even getting into Reagan’s signing of a bill in 1986 that granted “amnesty” to millions of undocumented individuals, his decision to “cut and run” from Lebanon in 1983, or his sale of sophisticated weapons to the Iranians and the shifting of the proceeds from those sales to Nicaraguan Contras, action that should have gotten him impeached.
Similarly, Lewis whistles past the graveyard of other recent Republican apostasies. The Second Iraq War barely rates a mention, the Great Recession is an afterthought, and the massive deficits accumulated under recent Republican administrations are barely touched on. Meanwhile, President Obama is dismissed as a paint-by-numbers liberal who has attempted to foist any number of evil government policies on a gullible electorate, not the least of which is of course the Heritage Foundation idea that people be required to purchase health insurance, which forms the core of what we now call Obamacare.
Lewis also overstates the direness of the state of the Republican Party. The Obama years have been phenomenal for the GOP at the state level, where they control more than half the governorships and legislatures. Indeed, but for a single house of the Kentucky Legislature, the entire Old Confederacy is under Republican rule - a decimation of the Democratic Party that has been as total as the Republicans in the Northeast. In Congress, more Republicans are seated in the House of Representatives than at any time since 1928 and they also hold a majority in the Senate.
On public policy, for all the Republican kvelling about Obama’s overuse of executive authority (itself a pile of Grade A horseshit), after Sandy Hook, states passed more laws expanding gun rights than restricting them, and many states in the South have all but eliminated access to abortion. At the national level, the battle over tax policy has been won by Republicans with the assent of Democratic Presidents who have defined up the “middle class” from $250,000 under President Clinton to $400,000 under President Obama, who, incidentally, signed the law that permanently codified 99% of the George W. Bush-era tax rates. Reductions in capital gains and carried interest rates have shifted wealth upward, with many millionaires paying lower marginal rates than middle class wage earners while the amount of federal spending going toward so-called “discretionary” parts of the federal budget are at Eisenhower-era lows.
And therein lies the limitation in Lewis’s argument. On the one hand, there is little interest in seriously examining the Reagan Revolution and its distortion by Republicans to suit their facile arguments about things like taxes, the military, and domestic policy and on the other, they have suffered no political consequences for it - indeed, but for the Presidency, Republicans have not held so many offices at the federal and state level in eight decades.
What Lewis is left with is a lot of Poli Sci 101 ruminations on political philosophy and a few well-placed critiques. For example, Lewis rightly criticizes the anti-intellectualism of his party and its failure to adjust with the shifting winds of social change. He points to the weakening of the party structure and the rise of outside groups as one symptom of why there is less party unity and fidelity. Instead of having extremism rooted out, the party has been overtaken by its most intransigent members. In an alternate universe, Senate Republicans would be willing to give an Obama nominee to fill Justice Scalia’s seat a fair shake, would have negotiated (and voted for) the stimulus bill, and provided suggestions that could have incorporated more conservative policies into the Affordable Care Act - but Lewis cannot bring himself to suggest even these modest concessions.
When it comes to solutions, Lewis goes for some unusual options - promoting “New Urbanism” - and more conventional choices - hello, outreach to Hispanics. But even here, he cannot mask his disdain for “the Left.” After a pages-long screed over how “the Left” politicizes climate change, the best Lewis can muster is the idea that it is okay to question the science but not demonize it (never mind that the Republican Party literally stands alone among all political parties in the Western Hemisphere as questioning man’s role in climate change). Similarly, instead of questioning (and offering answers to) the near total rejection of Republicans by African-American voters, Lewis glides right past this problem to focus on attracting other minority groups. In doing so, he misses the opportunity to mine what is a deep vein of skepticism toward his party by people of color based on the policies they advocate and the message they send. Finally, he encourages young conservatives to be well-read, but fails to identify anything other than standard conservative reading material as a starting point for their education.
Any reckoning for why the Republican Party is so monochromatic and why the demographics that are making it harder and harder for them to compete for the White House will be lost so long as there are no electoral consequences in off year elections and at the state level. In the meantime, while the chances for winning in November become more remote with every batshit crazy Donald Trump incident, the reality is the GOP is that one election away from complete control of the federal government - hardly a political party in decline.
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