How Did the GOP Become the Party of Ideas?
If Trump was the end of the “party of ideas,” the rise of Reagan was its start. But what were those “ideas” in the first place, and were they really as new as people said?
December 9, 2020
Dec 9, 2020
21 Min read time
If Trump was the end of the “party of ideas,” the rise of Reagan was its start. But what were those “ideas” in the first place, and were they really as new as people said?
For many conservative pundits, the election of Donald Trump marked the moment when the Republican Party abandoned its longstanding claim to being the “party of ideas.” For example, in June 2017 longtime Republican policy advisor Bruce Bartlett wrote, “Trump is what happens when a political party abandons ideas.” For Bartlett, though, it had been a long decline, dating back decades. Likewise, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell argued that “somehow the Party of Ideas stopped coming up with them circa, oh, 1987.”
The history of the idea of the “party of ideas” offers us not only valuable insight into the twentieth-century history of the right, but also the intellectual crisis that has plagued liberalism since the 1970s.
As both of these comments suggest, the belief that the Republican Party was losing its status as the “party of ideas” long predated the rise of Trump. It went back to the 1988 presidential campaign, when critics fretted that George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, lacked what Bush called the “vision thing.” By the early 1990s, conservative columnists were already worrying that, as Cal Thomas wrote, the GOP is “no longer identified as the party of ideas”—that it had, within a decade, become, as another columnist claimed, “intellectually spent, aimless, and exhausted.” Ever since, observations that the “GOP is no longer the party of ideas” have been a hardy perennial of punditry.
Yet even as we recognize the dramatic contrasts between the Republicans in the 1980s and those of our present moment, there remain several reasons to reject the “party of ideas” narrative. First, many of the GOP’s celebrated “new ideas” of the 1970s and ’80s were not novel but standard elements of a previously unpopular, anti–New Deal ideology then in the process of becoming dominant. Second, the narrative of devolution elides continuity in GOP rhetoric. At his meandering campaign rallies, even Trump—the personification of the transformation of the GOP from “party of ideas” to cult—never failed to denounce his opponent, Joe Biden, as a “socialist” who “will raise your taxes,” familiar charges straight out of the anti–New Deal playbook. Finally, the designation of the GOP as a party of ideas was not even something Republicans came up with for themselves.
So then how did the GOP come to be known as the party of ideas in the first place? And what were those ideas?
It turns out that the term actually came not from inside the GOP but from a leading Democratic figure, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, as part of an intraparty debate, invoked the nomenclature of the “party of ideas” as part of his negative reassessment of his own party’s continuing commitment to New Deal and Great Society liberalism. Therefore the history of the idea of the “party of ideas” offers us not only valuable insight into the twentieth-century history of the right, but also the intellectual crisis that has plagued liberalism since the 1970s.
• • •
In the summer of 1978, Bill Brock, the newly elected chair of the Republican National Committee, published the first issue of a periodical called Common Sense: A Republican Journal of Thought and Opinion. Brock’s RNC leadership coincided with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the emergence of the Republican Party as the ascendent national party. Although Democrats continued to control the House of Representatives for the remainder of the decade, the GOP made inroads in areas formerly dominated by Democrats such as Macomb County, Michigan, home of the original “Reagan Democrats.” Then, in 1983, and for the first time in twenty-eight years, Republicans took over the Senate.
Many of the GOP’s celebrated “new ideas” of the 1970s and ’80s were not novel but standard elements of a previously unpopular, anti–New Deal ideology then in the process of becoming dominant.
More importantly, the Republican Party shaped the national agenda in ways it had not since the 1920s, as its conceptions of the role of government, the dangers of bureaucracy, the importance of military spending, the wonders of free markets, and, above all, the necessity of tax cuts became hegemonic. The GOP in the Reagan years dominated the youth vote, one sign that it had become the more dynamic political party. There was a broad sense that, after almost five decades in the political wilderness, the Republicans were, as GOP strategist Kevin Phillips had predicted a decade earlier, on the verge of capturing a new electoral majority.
Although Common Sense was short-lived (it only published for five years), it changed conceptions of what the Republican Party, still recovering from the Watergate disaster, stood for. The journal aimed to create an intellectual framework for Republican success, and was filled with articles by policy wonks who’d later join the Reagan administration, including David Stockman, Elliott Abrams, and Jeane Kirkpatrick; Antonin Scalia, whom Reagan would appoint to the Supreme Court; and politicians such as Bob Packwood, James L. Buckley, and Jack Kemp. There was even an article by a Jefferson County, Kentucky, judge/executive by the name of Mitch McConnell.
In his publisher’s note at the beginning of the inaugural issue, Brock spelled out why the journal was central to the mission of the party. Referring to the success of the Democratic New Deal coalition, which had dominated national politics since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, Brock wrote, “the last great partisan coalition was built on ideas,” and claimed that a countervailing coalition would need to be based on them as well.
Laying out what he took to be the central idea of the New Deal, Brock wrote, “The notion of an activist federal government, with an obligation to use its centralized power to ‘meet new social problems with new social controls,’ was a new idea in the 1930s.” If he praised the Democrats for building a durable, if fraying, political bloc around this idea, he was critical of the concept around which that bloc had flourished. Recalling the title of a 1948 book by conservative writer Richard Weaver, Brock noted that “ideas have consequences” and that “the contest for votes must be a contest of ideas.”
The view that the 1980s was, as Tim Alberta referred to it in 2018, “a golden age of Republican innovation” is not wrong. The GOP did produce a series of significant conservative innovations—many of which were mooted in Common Sense—including Jack Kemp’s “urban enterprise zones,” welfare reform, the “Laffer Curve,” “Supply Side” economics, school vouchers, and the balanced-budget amendment.
Critically, though, these proposals are best understood as variations on an older theme. To this point, it is important to note that Brock himself did not emphasize “new” ideas. Even the name of the journal, Common Sense, evoked not new ideas but sedimented verities. He emphasized in particular the central importance of a very old idea that had defined the GOP for almost five decades: overturning the New Deal.
Brock’s approach may have been novel, but it is best seen as the latest episode in the longstanding effort to knock the New Deal off its pedestal. Much of the content of the journal—either directly, as in Murray L. Weidenbaum’s “Cutting the Size of Big Government” in the second issue, or indirectly, as in Lawrence H. Silberman’s piece on identifying “ineffective governmental programs eligible for termination”—put a wonk’s spin on traditional conservative goals. William J. Baroody, Jr., the president of the American Enterprise Institute, said something very similar in 1984. “For 40 years public policy had been dominated by a single idea: Whatever the individual cannot do for himself or herself it is the responsibility and social obligation of government to do.” The fundamental goal, said Baroody, was “to challenge that consensus at the most fundamental levels.” What made this challenge successful was not just a growth in the number of GOP policy wonks, but Democratic acquiescence and a public increasingly discomfited by the contemporary state of liberalism.
Common Sense went largely unnoticed by the public, though, until the first-term Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a veteran policymaker who had served in a variety of capacities in both Democratic and Republican administrations, celebrated it in the New York Times in July 1980. (A profile of Brock as the “GOP Renaissance Man” that had appeared in Newsweek two months prior did not mention the journal at all.) In his article, Moynihan, himself a former academic, pointed to the “first-rate” journal as evidence that the GOP had transformed itself into “the party of ideas.”
Pundits claimed that Reagan was not nostalgic but rather interested in “returning to the past’s way of facing the future,” which in fact is quite a tidy way of characterizing the GOP’s success since the 1930s at mainstreaming white identity politics.
Moynihan noted that the “Republicans’ dominant idea, at least for the moment, seems to be that the social controls of modern government have become tyrannical or, at the very least, exorbitantly expensive.” He neglected to mention, however, that—far from being au courant—this had been the standard critique of the New Deal left since the 1930s. Moynihan offered some mild criticism of the Republicans’ ideas, but also confessed that “we Democrats have been in power so long we have not been able to avoid becoming in ways the Party of the Government, and it shows.” Too many constituents of the Democrats, he noted, “depend on Government subvention and guarantee.” He further observed that “we would do well to take heed when Republicans start campaigning, as indeed they have, on platforms that they are the ‘party of the working man’,” although he did not elaborate on how their ideas qualified them to make this claim.
Moynihan, like Brock, did not specify any distinctly new Republican ideas. Impressed by Brock’s attention to policy and ability to round up intellectual support for conservatism, Moynihan—mainly in an effort to critique the direction of his own party—painted these old chestnuts in a newly flattering light. Moynihan was one of the first Democrats to accept the logic of what Brock in 1978 had called “a common sense approach to government,” by which he meant that “big bureaucratic government is the problem and not the solution” and that “excessive taxation” and government spending “are far too high”—none of which was common sense at all. These ideas, advocated by a vocal minority from the 1930s through the 1970s, had, by 1980, become accepted not only by the Republicans who had been their primary promulgators but by many Democrats, who had previously rejected them.
• • •
Common Sense ceased publication in 1983, not long after Brock became U.S. trade representative. Yet Moynihan’s “party of ideas” label stuck long after its demise. The moniker was taken up to signal that the party was forward-thinking, young, and optimistic, as when conservative columnist George F. Will jabbed in 1984, “Once the party of ideas, the Democrats have become the party of assistant professors.” It was the Republicans who had “forced the country to ask, ‘just how much government?’” observed Will, as if this was a new question.
This was not a new critique for Will; he had said as much in 1980 when he wrote that Reagan had “creatively assembled a potent constellation of ideas.” And what were these brilliant new ideas, according to Will? That “the nation is not as productive at home or as strong abroad as it must be.” Well. He then somewhat undermined his theme of optimism by presciently referring to the “seething determination of many millions of Americans to find a political voice for their cultural anxieties.” To that end, he claimed that Reagan was not nostalgic but rather interested in “returning to the past’s way of facing the future,” which in fact is quite a tidy way of characterizing the GOP’s success since the 1930s at mainstreaming white identity politics. Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Make American Great Again”—recycled as Donald Trump’s MAGA mantra—further suggested an embrace of what even commentators at the time called a “nostalgic theme.”
Over the course of the 1980s, then—as Republicans, for the first time since the 1920s, came to be seen as the nation’s governing party—the “party of ideas” sobriquet came increasingly to be simply so much ad copy: it vouched for the existence of a youthful, exciting brand rather than a commitment to a novel intellectual approach. Accepting the nomination in Dallas in 1984, Reagan proclaimed: “We are the party of new ideas, we are the party of the future whose philosophy is vigorous and dynamic. And they are the party of the tried and not-true.” Like many commentators, he elided “ideas” with masculinist vigor and dynamism. Although he promised to wage, with “joy and vigor,” a battle of ideas, the only idea he mentioned was a negative one—stopping the Democratic plan for a “huge tax increase”—that he had endorsed since he first embraced conservative politics as a General Electric spokesperson in the late 1950s.
Over the course of the 1980s, the “party of ideas” sobriquet came increasingly to be simply so much ad copy: it vouched for the existence of a youthful, exciting brand rather than a commitment to a novel intellectual approach.
Republicans often celebrated the new “spirit” of the party. One pundit enthused about “Reagan’s sunny personality, vision, and gift for touching the heart and hopes of people.” Another columnist, celebrating the “innovative ideas” on offer at the GOP 1984 convention, claimed that “two major threads are common through all of the Republican theorists’ new ideas.” These ideas were, first, “faith in the benefits of unfettered capitalism,” and, second, “a thorough rejection of big government and an unbounded optimism about the nation’s future.” Likewise, that year’s GOP platform emphasized that optimistic Republicans represented “a new dawn of the American spirit,” as opposed to the defeatist Democratic belief in “the twilight of the American soul.”
Although framed by Brock and others as optimistic, this “spirit” drew on cultural anxieties and backlash politics, as symbolized by Reagan’s decision to kick off his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Mississippi Fair, where he highlighted his support for “state’s rights,” a dog whistle for white identity politics.
• • •
If the celebration of the GOP as a party of ideas bore so little correlation to the GOP of the real world, then what were Democrats such as Moynihan thinking? It is safe to say that, for figures on the left, the polemic was less a description of the ascendant GOP than it was a foil for internal debates about how to reinvent the Democratic Party in the wake of the perceived exhaustion of postwar liberalism. In addition, they were doing so in the context of the seemingly insoluble problem of stagflation.
Over the years, Moynihan’s declaration has been revisited by many pundits and politicians, perhaps none more than Moynihan himself. A month after his New York Times piece appeared, Moynihan fleshed out his claims in an article for the New Republic, the editors of which shared the senator’s frustration with the parlous state of liberalism. Once again he praised the old ideas in Common Sense as something new. But he also mixed his praise for the GOP with a blistering critique of his own party. Where he saw intellectual excitement for Republicans, he pronounced the opposite for Democrats. “Somewhere in the 1960s we ceased to be a party of ideas,” he wrote, “but we then went on to become a party rather opposed to ideas, which is a different matter.”
Moynihan saw the shellacking of the 1980 election as the rightful comeuppance for a party unwilling to examine its outdated assumptions. In the days after Reagan’s convincing victory over incumbent Jimmy Carter, Moynihan held that the “extremist” branch associated with Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy had turned the Democrats into a party with “no new ideas.” Going farther than he had in July, Moynihan, sounding a lot like a Reagan Republican, claimed that the Kennedy “cadre” believe that “the federal government should be strong and America weak.” He called these views “a formula for becoming a minority party.” He once again praised Brock and offered to edit a Democratic version of Common Sense. Labeling the GOP the “party of ideas” was thus a tool for Moynihan, who called himself a “centrist” suspicious of “doctrinaire liberals,” in the internecine battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
Moynihan returned to this moment in the introduction to his 1996 memoir, holding to the narrative about the declension of the party that he had offered sixteen years earlier. “By the close of the Carter administration,” he wrote, “it was plain enough that the Democratic party had nothing much to offer by way of ideas about whatever it was that troubled us. But Democrats failed to see what the Republicans did. They had become a party of ideas.” He then quoted verbatim about half of his July 1980 opinion piece.
More consequential than the second-guessing of the idiosyncratic Moynihan were the Democratic politicians and liberal intellectuals who echoed Moynihan’s claim. Shortly after Moynihan’s 1980 article came out, Beltway journalist Robert W. Merry published a lengthy piece on the Republican’s “idea edge” in the Wall Street Journal, demonstrating that Moynihan’s critique was widely supported in parts of the Democratic Party. It began by quoting an anonymous “young Democratic Senator” who called his party “bankrupt” and lacking “confidence,” and claimed that “it doesn’t have any governing ideas left.” Jeane Kirkpatrick, soon to be Reagan’s United Nations ambassador, offered, “The Democratic Party is bogged down in orthodoxies; they’re addressing today’s problems with incantations.” Merry noted that Democrats did not have responses to the Republican critique of “onerous federal intrusion” and support for “deep tax cuts.” Paul Tsongas, a Massachusetts senator, called for the Democrats to reject reflexive anti-Republicanism: “Just because an idea has a Republican origin doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.”
A common theme of the Democrats who admired the GOP’s supposed turn toward new ideas was that Democrats were stuck in the past, that new realities had made New Deal solutions moot.
A common theme of the Democrats who admired the GOP’s supposed turn toward new ideas was that Democrats were stuck in the past, that new realities had made New Deal solutions moot. Senators Bill Bradley and Gary Hart, both considered part of this group, emphasized what they called the “end of the New Deal.” A group of Democrats calling themselves “neoliberals” held that, in their chronicler Randall Rothenberg’s words: “The new economic era was more complicated, harder to respond to. It required new ideas.” They believed “the solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties.” Many Democrats sought to “look past the tired formulas of left and right,” as Carter’s former speechwriter James Fallows put it.
A 1980 profile in the New York Times of Oklahoma Democratic congressman James R. “Jimmy” Jones, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, highlighted the view that, during the Carter presidency, former proponents of New Deal liberalism were seeing the errors of their ways. Noting that it was “odd for a protégé of Lyndon B. Johnson” to call for cuts in “entitlements,” a phrase still so new that it was surrounded by quotation marks, Jones claimed that new realities had forced him to change his perspective. Paraphrasing Jones, the reporter noted: “The times have changed. Government is more suspect than it was.”
In this same period, some Democrats also shaped the bipartisan discourse that there was an “entitlements crisis” and a need for “welfare reform.” The premise was that, however commendable the New Deal and Great Society programs may have been, the country could no longer afford them. From the vantage of the Clinton years, Felix G. Rohatyn, a Lazard Freres banker and former New York City official during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, accepted what had become a standard line for his style of Democrats: “The Democrats were once the party of ideas—a role now preempted by Republicans.” He noted, as Moynihan had in the previous decade, that the party was now “bereft of ideas.” Much like the neoconservatives who claimed they had been “mugged by reality,” he claimed to have been “mugged by deficits,” and therefore became a “balanced budget conservative.” Furthermore, he, like Fallows, averred, “I do not believe that ‘conservatism’ or ‘liberalism’ are relevant ideologies now.” The “financial constraints” in a “global economy” had changed the rules of the game, he said. Reform Democrats sought a post–New Deal grounding to accommodate the new realities and complications that they believed set a limit on social policy.
• • •
During the era of the New Deal order, the presidency seemed like a Democratic prerogative, shared with the GOP only for two eight-year periods since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s defeat of Herbert Hoover in 1932—and the second of those periods (1969–77) ended with the disgrace of the Watergate scandal. Yet little more than a decade later, things looked strikingly different. “We Democrats have won just two of the past seven presidential elections and got our clocks cleaned at the congressional, state and local levels in 1994,” wrote Democratic policy expert Ted Van Dyk in 1995. He condemned the state of “our former party of ideas” and criticized the tendency of party leaders to react to “a third-rate grab bag of conservative notions.” Instead he called for deeper engagement in policy. The example he selected was telling: “the need to discipline the welfare state.” He thought it important to prove incorrect those who say that Democrats “lack the guts to reform our own Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid offspring.”
This was the dilemma that many Democrats faced in the 1990s: to prove their seriousness about ideas, they felt constrained to question the continued relevance of the achievements of the New Deal order. In contrast, Republicans, now widely recognized as the ideas party, felt no need to reject their anti–New Deal traditions. Whereas in the past they had been rejected as hidebound and out of touch, now they were perceived as innovative.
The “party of ideas” discourse, which so dominated political discussion in the late twentieth century, has obscured the reality that, a century on, the battle between the New Deal and its foes remains the central feature of U.S. politics.
Van Dyk, like many chastened liberals of the previous decade, called for “entitlement-program discipline,” without which “there soon will be no money left in the federal budget for anything but defense, debt service and entitlements.” When critics sought to emulate the GOP as a party of ideas, they often accepted austerity as the condition of their thinking. Indeed, they suggested that that was what made them tough-minded, realistic, and ideas-driven. But this also left them hamstrung: as Maclean’s columnist Charles Gordon noted in 1989, in accepting these premises, they had basically turned themselves into conservatives.
The association of the Reagan-era GOP with ideas should be attributed as much to Moynihan as to the Gipper himself. The GOP became known as the party of ideas less because of the new perspectives it offered than because of the views of Democrats who were becoming increasingly critical of the direction of postwar liberalism, and because a growing number of white voters, who had previously supported and benefitted from the liberalism of the New Deal, began drifting away.
Many Democrats rightly believed that Republicans had built an intellectual edifice that was, for the first time since the age of Roosevelt, more compelling than their own. But they were less likely to recognize that this edifice was built upon an old foundation. When Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, he reflected, “I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time . . . in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom.” What Obama didn’t say was that the “conventional wisdom” being challenged by Republicans was the ideas and policies of the New Deal order that had made the Democratic Party dominant. Reference to Republicans as the party of new ideas was thus a misnomer in two senses: there was ultimately only one idea—that the New Deal framework should be overturned—and it was not in any sense new.
This “party of ideas” discourse, which so dominated political discussion in the late twentieth century, has obscured the reality that, a century on, the battle between the New Deal and its foes remains the central feature of U.S. politics. It was true when Obama was campaigning, and it’s all the more so today as we face interlocking public health, climate, racial justice, and economic crises requiring massive federal intervention. For all the changes in our recent political culture, the political debates of the New Deal era—which come down to a question of what kind of society we are—remain strikingly relevant. Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s 1976 declaration that “anti-Government rhetoric” is “a not-so-subtle form of racism” could have been said at any point during the Trump administration. Likewise Bayard Rustin’s 1981 remark that the GOP was indeed a “party of ideas”—the “wrong ones”—and that Democrats needed to combat them by articulating “a cohesive and inspiring vision of American society.”
Although President-elect Biden came of political age in the period when many in his party were abandoning the New Deal model, he often highlighted during his campaign the need for a bold presidency and evoked the spirit of FDR. Time will tell whether this potential re-embrace of bold New Deal thinking will lead future historians to label the 2020s as the time when Democrats once again claimed the mantle of the party of ideas or whether the Republican critique of active governance on behalf of the people’s welfare will continue to remain our debilitating political common sense.
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December 09, 2020
21 Min read time