In Republican mythology, Ronald Reagan was just Barry Goldwater with a smile.
To the right wing true believer, Reagan and Goldwater were congenial political bedfellows, their ideas about government being the problem not the solution cut from the same ideological cloth. This was delightful for conservatives because it allowed them to use Reagan's landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 to wipe away bitter memories of Goldwater's own history-making shellacking in 1964.
More important, Reagan's twin triumphs gave Republicans the chance to redeem the reputation of right wing conservatism as not being "extreme" at all. Conservatism was mainstream, even popular, Republicans insisted, just so long as its messenger was an amiable Great Communicator and not some temperamental grump stupid enough to say out loud that extremism was no vice -- provided it was done in pursuit of ideas Republicans knew in their heart to be right.
That's the historical takeaway Republicans are applying today as they chart a possible new course for their party.
In November, Republicans failed for the fifth time in six tries to win a national majority. And so the $64,000 question is: Can the GOP change? Can it moderate its far right instincts and inclinations and once again become a sensible, national governing party able to appeal to a broader swath of the American electorate?
If we are to believe recent attempts by such high profile Republicans as Governor Bobby Jindal and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to reposition their party, the answer to that question is: We don't have to. And the reason they don't -- the reason Republicans cling stubbornly to their far right extremism -- is Ronald Reagan, and how Reagan proved the "experts" wrong when they said conservatism was dead after Goldwater's monumental drubbing in 1964.
In his speech last month imploring Republicans to stop being the "stupid party," Governor Jindal dutifully "spanked his party for its stale clichés" about immigrants and women's rights, said David Brooks. But when you scratched the surface, said Brooks, there were "more calls for change than actual evidence of change."
Cantor wasn't much better. Expectations ran high that Cantor's big speech this week to the American Enterprise Institute would deliver on its promise to show "how Republican ideas could benefit families across the nation," as one Cantor aide put it.
The Wall Street Journal even gave Cantor's speech a "breathless preview" under the headline, "A GOP Leader Aims to Change Party's Message," notes New Republic's Alec MacGillis. But the only big idea Cantor offered was cutting the tax on medical devices. Seriously?
As for the rest, Cantor offered nothing but bromides about "individual freedom" and the need to stick with "conservative principles" as he talked up such golden oldies as school vouchers and block-granting Medicaid using new and improved language that framed these reliable right wing standbys as fresh ideas for "helping middle class families."
In offering ways Republicans might build new appeal to ordinary voters, neither Cantor, Jindal, Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan have "proposed actual reform or a departure from the arch-conservative policies that defined Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency," says American Prospect's Jamelle Bouie.
Instead, Republicans have merely pushed new rhetoric for the same policies in an attempt to navigate between the real political constraints of the GOP base and a real need for change.
"What's really going on in all these Big Speeches is very simple," says the Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore. "Having won control of the Republican Party after nearly a half century of struggle, the conservative movement does not want to hear that now is the time for the GOP to reconsider its ideology. The only real question now is at what point GOP leaders declare themselves 'changed' and 'reformed' for having listened to all these speeches."
The press, to its credit, has been fairly dismissive of this new marketing pitch, says Bouie. NBC News called it a "cosmetic makeover" while National Journal dismissed it as a substance-free Republican "charm offensive."
But the broader problem for Republicans, as Bouie says, is the difficulty of crafting a governing agenda for a party whose ideology is hostile not only to government but politics itself, if we define politics as premised on disagreement and compromise over fundamental principles conservatives consider non-negotiable and even sacrosanct.
"If the Republican Party has left itself any space for embracing constructive governing solutions, it's hard to find," says Bouie.
But what do you expect from a party that is "effectively a religious organization founded on unalterable doctrines and not a sane political party," as Andrew Sullivan writes - one that finds itself on the losing end of demographic change and up against an electorate that does not respond to its core positions.
Such a party, if it refuses to change, basically faces two choices. It can either craft a better marketing and communications message and hope to fool some of the people some of the time about the underlying unpopularity of its ideas, as Republicans like Cantor and Jindal are currently trying to do. Or, it can cheat, as Republicans are also attempting to do, in their efforts to rig the system in order to give themselves the majority of electoral votes even when they lose.
Republicans are hoping a Ronald Reagan feel good, Morning in America-like message will resonate with American voters and, once again, work it's magic and make American's forget all about Barry Goldwater's extremism being no vice. Only that can explain why two such prominent Republicans as Jindal and Cantor would devote so much valuable prime time space not toward rethinking the GOP's hard right ideology but toward repackaging it in kinder colors and gentler shades and hues.
But there's a glaring flaw with this strategy for the GOP: While Ronald Reagan the legend may be revered by present day Republicans, Reaganism isn't. As numerous commentators noted during the just completed election, no matter how idolized "The Gipper" may be by Republicans, when you look at Reagan's actual record -- raising taxes 11 times; saving Social Security and thus rescuing the centerpiece of the reviled New Deal; sitting down and making nice with the leader of the Soviet Union's Evil Empire -- the real Ronald Reagan could never win their party's nomination today.
In short, while Reagan won the hearts of Republicans, the Goldwaterism that was roundly rejected by Americans everywhere outside the Old Confederacy 50 years ago is still their party's spiritual heart and soul in 2013.
Take a look at the House Republican Caucus. This is not Ronald Reagan's Republican Party. It's Barry Goldwater's - or at least Barry Goldwater on steroids, because Goldwater's frontier-style libertarianism had no tolerance for the busy-bodies of the Religious Right.
To understand what is going on in today's GOP you have to go back half a century and to the right wing movement that nominated Goldwater for president -- and then looked on as he suffered one of the greatest humiliations in American political history.
Most conservatives, such as the badly abused "moderates" who once inhabited the Republican "establishment," are mainly concerned with "maintaining a tissue of institutions for whose stability and effectiveness they believe the country's business and political elites hold responsibility," writes historian Richard Hofstadter in his post-mortem of the 1964 election, "Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics."
Goldwater, on the other hand, says Hofstadter, "thinks of conservatism as a system of eternal and unchanging ideas and ideals, whose claims upon us must be constantly asserted and honored in full."
The difference is between a conservatism "as a set of doctrines whose validity is to be established by polemics" and a conservatism as a "set of rules whose validity is to be established by their useability in government."
And that difference, says Hofstadter, is not one of "nuance" but of "fundamental substance." Hence the split within the Republican Party and the exiling of all moderate and establishment RINOs
Among ultra-conservatives "for whom the old pieties are binding moral principles," the Eisenhower Administration's refusal to immediately embark upon a program of dismantling the New Deal, doing away with high taxes and repudiating liberalism in all its forms, "was worse than a disappointment," said Hofstadter. "It was a betrayal."
When the supporters of Barry Goldwater argued that America was governed by means of "hypnotic manipulation, corruption and betrayal," they were indulging in more than just the "fantasies of indignant patriots," said Hofstadter. They were questioning the legitimacy of the political order itself.
If politics were like economics then elections would serve the same function as the price mechanism does, telling parties like businesses how they must adjust their product design and cost to meet changing demands in a perfectly competitive marketplace.
But unlike professional politicians who want above all else to win, and whose conduct is therefore shaped by that pragmatic goal -- and by the accountability which popular elections provide -- Hofstadter said the "zealots" who followed Goldwater "were moved more by the desire to dominate the party than to win the country, concerned more to express resentments and punish 'traitors' (read: RINOs), to justify a set of values and assert grandiose, militant visions than to actually solve problems of state."
More important, said Hofstadter, Goldwater's right wing supporters "were immune to the pressure to move over from an extreme position toward the center of the political spectrum which is generally exerted by the professionals desire to win."
That is because their true objective was not winning an election but capturing a major party to serve as a platform "from which to propagandize for a sound view of the world."
Look at Goldwater himself, says Hofstadter. He ran no important organization. He assumed no important role in the US Senate. He wrote no consequential legislation. Rather, Goldwater gained national notoriety as a "partisan exhorter and organizer. A speaker and ideologue for whom preaching a sound philosophy was more interesting than addressing himself to the problems of state."
And when Goldwater became the GOP's standard-bearer in 1964 -- and its spiritual leader today, whether Republicans recognize that or not -- Goldwater made up for his lack of stature as a statesman by his outstanding ability, as Hofstadter put it, to be "a partisan evangelist who particularly mobilized those Republicans whose discontent was keenest, whose ideological fervor was strongest" and who were the most dissatisfied with "the bland and circumspect" Republican Party that emerged from the New Deal years.
And that was the Goldwater who, a half century ago, was rejected by voters in every state but his own and those which went to war with their own country in 1861.
You can either read about the right wing enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater as ancient history or as current events. It really does not matter, for the truth is that what Hofstadter refers to as the pseudo-conservative "zealots" who briefly took over the GOP a generation ago are the same Tea Party fanatics who control the Republican Party today. But this time there is no Ronald Reagan to save them from themselves.