Ronald Reagan had the insight – perhaps genius is a better term – to build his winning political movement on the three-legged stool of economic conservatism, national defense conservatism and social conservatism.
The political power of the marriage of the California free-market oriented entrepreneurs, conservative defense intellectuals, and socially conservative pastors and social commentators who led the Reagan coalition wasn’t obvious in the beginning.
However, it worked because each of these constituencies believed that, even when they didn’t get everything they wanted, Ronald Reagan would never take their issues off the table.
In 2010, a fourth leg was added to the Reagan coalition – the small government constitutional conservatives of the Tea Party Movement. As a result of adding this fourth leg to their coalition, the GOP was swept back into control of the House of Representatives, brought within striking distance of a Senate majority, and a re-energized Republican Party elected thousands of down-ballot candidates.
Unfortunately, unlike the wise Party leaders who built the Reagan coalition -- men such as Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, Lyn Nofziger, Dick Allen, Ed Meese, Marty Anderson, and Judge William Clark -- instead of solidifying the four legs of the new coalition, in 2012, establishment Republicans did their best to alienate and marginalize the new conservative voting bloc of the Tea Party movement.
To Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, who was handed the Speakers’ gavel through their votes, Tea Partiers are “knuckle-draggers” who should “get their ass in line” and go along with raising the debt ceiling and other policies that violate their small government constitutional conservative principles.
Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, who came to the RNC chairmanship representing himself as the bridge to the Tea Party and grassroots conservatives, openly disparaged Tea Party favorites (such as Sarah Palin) and presided over changes in Party Rules expressly designed to dilute the influence of the grassroots constitutional conservative movement.
All of this led Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, to charge in a Newsmax TV interview that “the GOP, the Republican Party, took the Tea Party issues off the table” during the 2012 election.
Martin went on to note that, “In 2010, the Tea Party delivered the largest change in the House of Representatives in 60 years – and they [Republican leaders] haven’t even cut a penny yet. And, now, they’re backpedaling on a deal that they made 14, 15 months ago."
Martin summed-up where many small government constitutional conservatives are coming from, and what probably kept many of them home on Election Day 2012, when she said, “At this point, we have learned we can’t depend on the Republican Party.”
This is the polar opposite of how the Reagan people built the winning coalition of the 1980s.
Establishment Republicans trying to defend the failures of 2012 may argue that Reagan wasn’t able to deliver everything each of the three legs of his coalition wanted.
The big difference between how Reagan managed his coalition and how the establishment has treated the Tea Party is that in Reagan’s time, each leg of the coalition understood that their voices were being heard and respected -- and that they had a seat at the table at policy discussions in the Reagan White House.
Their issues were never, as Jenny Beth Martin said, “taken off the table.”
Of course, another part of Reagan’s appeal to each of those constituencies was that he didn’t have to turn himself into a pretzel to pander to them.
Social conservatives, economic conservatives and national defense conservatives all understood that Reagan actually believed in his positions on their issues, and, as scholarship on his writings has revealed, he had spent years refining his thoughts and rhetoric on those positions.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, Romney was always a hard sell to at least two legs of the coalition -- social conservatives and the small government constitutional conservatives of the Tea Party -- because no one really believed he subscribed to their principles... or any principles.
When the social conservative movement rose in the late 1970s, the Reagan people made sure social conservatives found a natural home – and a warm welcome – behind the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Instead of alienating and dismissing them, Republican leaders of today should have done the same when the Tea Party movement came into being.
Reagan’s genius in binding together a winning coalition provides a tried-and-true model for today’s Republican leaders.
The first step in following that model should be to get rid of those responsible for the alienation of the Tea Party -- Reince Preibus, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell -- and replace them with leaders who are smart enough to know a winning coalition when they see one, and who actually believe in and will fight for the principles of all four legs of that winning coalition.