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Reagan’s Long-Lost Message for Today’s CPAC

Likely as not, you could get rich collecting a dollar each time a speaker at this year’s (or any year’s) Conservative Political Action Conference invokes the name of Ronald Reagan.

But I was struck by some of the contents of his 1977 pre-presidential speech at that venue — words current attendees might well heed if they want the movement and the Republican party to prosper in the future, not fall off the right edge of the earth.

The speech was delivered with the GOP at one of its lowest points ever — with the presidency just lost and Democrats holding 60 Senate seats and a two-thirds majority in the House. Typically for Reagan, it was an upbeat declaration that there was really a conservative majority in the country and that a “New Republican Party” could consolidate it and win elections. Which, of course, happened just three years later with Reagan’s landslide victory, bringing in a Republican majority in the Senate.

Contemporary conservatives will have their hearts warmed anew by much of the speech — an eloquent ode to limited government, low taxes and family-oriented social conservatism. But Reagan also called for outreach and inclusion of a type that most tea party/Club for Growth/Jim DeMint conservatives — even Mitt Romney — now don’t accept, to the party’s long-term political peril.

As for Romney’s belief that the GOP couldn’t reach 47 percent of Americans — the “takers” — Reagan said:

“The New Republican Party I envision will not be, and cannot be, one limited to the country club, big business image that, for reasons both fair and unfair, it is burdened with today. The New Republican Party I am speaking about is going to have room for the man and woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before, but whose interests coincide with those represented by principled Republicanism.”

Reagan didn’t urge just “making room” for them. The GOP, he said, should “welcome them, seek them out, enlist them, not only as rank-and-file members, but as leaders and candidates.” Now, it’s true, he then wanted to attract them based on their conservative social views. And, today, it might be said, tea party populists are well represented among the demographic he was talking about.

In February 1977, Reagan was still pretty much a conventional conservative on economics — deficit-minded, not a supply-sider. What really won over working-class voters (also young people) to the GOP was his adoption in 1979 of the tax cut policies of Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., the ultimate outreach conservative. “Reaganomics” ended hyperinflation and restored prosperity. The top tax rate dropped from 70 percent to 28 percent and the result was 18.5 million new jobs created over an eight-year period.

Reagan told CPAC that “when a conservative states that the free market is the best mechanism ever devised by the mind of man to meet material needs, he is merely stating what a careful examination of the real world has told him is the truth.” CPAC attendees ought to spend serious time figuring out how to fashion a message (and policies) that will make people believe it again. After the Crash of 2008, presided over by George W. Bush, they don’t believe it.

What was even more stunning for a CPAC audience in 1977 was this from Reagan: “The time has come to say to black voters, ‘Look, we offer principles that black Americans can, and do, support. We believe in jobs, real jobs. We believe in education that is really education; we believe in treating all Americans as individuals and not as stereotypes or voting blocs…’ ” Of course, Reagan never received more than 14 percent of the African American vote, but the idea of a conservative (other than Kemp) urging Republicans to include blacks in the party was a breakthrough.

Latinos weren’t a factor in 1977 like they are today, but the fact is, Reagan carried 37 percent of their vote in 1980 and 34 percent in 1984. If today’s CPAC attendees observe the Reagan spirit, they’ll make the party as inviting to Hispanics as Reagan suggested doing for blacks.

And the third big Reagan message that ought to echo in today’s GOP is this: “Just to set the record straight, let me say this about our friends who are now Republicans but do not identify themselves as conservatives: I do not view the new revitalized Republican party as one based on a principle of exclusion.

“After all, you do not get to be a majority party by searching for groups you won’t associate or work with. If we truly believe in our principles, we should sit down and talk. Talk with anyone, anywhere at any time if it means talking about the principles for the Republican Party. Conservatism is not a narrow ideology, nor is it the exclusive property of conservative activists.”

Reagan, after all, was the great exponent of the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” He’s not likely to have smiled on the idea of branding someone a RINO. The present GOP, if it doesn’t want to tear itself apart, should heed — not just extol — its great departed leader.

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