Move to Washington, D.C., and you'll meet a lot of people who work for the government. Consequently, many of my recently made friends lucked into a day off on Friday, as the Republican Party proclaimed that federal employees throughout the land would have a shorter week in order to facilitate the celebration of the life and legacy of Ronald Reagan. Given that Reagan is almost surely more popular among the public at large than among the overwhelmingly Democratic career public servants whose work he never missed an opportunity to denigrate, it's a somewhat odd choice -- a reflection, perhaps, of a deep-seated conservative belief that it doesn't really matter whether or not the work of the government gets done.
An old friend of mine is on the federal payroll nowadays as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. He got orders recently to go to Iraq, where I expect the troops don't get much time off, even for something as important as Reagan Day. At any rate, I honestly don't know how much attention he pays to defense politics inside the beltway, but someone in the Marine chain of command must be frustrated at the slow pace of work in Congress on this year's Defense Department authorization bill and, even worse, on the supplemental appropriations that are supposed to finance continued operations in Iraq. Given that Congress took Friday off despite already being behind schedule you might think they worked extra hard Monday through Thursday in an effort to get something done. You'd be wrong.
In fact, they put work on both bills on hold for the entire week in order to clear floor time for symbolic resolutions and floor statements in praise of Ronald Reagan.
Worried about high gas prices and jobs moving overseas? There's a bill in the House that's supposed to address both problems, but it got shelved temporary in favor of symbolic resolutions and floor statements in praise of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, all real legislative work came to a halt for a week in order to make room for Reaganophilia. Instead of debating the nation's problems, the Senate floor was treated to a debate between Majority Leader Bill Frist and Armed Forces Committee Chairman John Warner regarding whether or not the Pentagon should be named after Reagan. Senator Warner, to his credit, noted that a similar suggestion to name the building after Eisenhower (an actual general) was rejected decades ago on the grounds that the military should be apolitical. One could also have pointed out that the Pentagon already has a really cool name, and there's already an extremely large office building named after Reagan. John Ashcroft also stopped by the Senate to refuse to release a memo that, reportedly, authorized the use of torture against prisoners at the president's discretion. He didn't cite any actual legal authority for his refusal to release this information to the congressional committee charged with overseeing his work; he just said he wasn't going to release it. Joe Biden noted that this could put him in contempt of Congress. Ashcroft's not too worried -- the GOP is in the majority, and Republicans think this whole torture thing is so May. June is for Reagan-worship.
There's your modern conservatism: not much interest in the substance of policy, but really fond of Ronald Reagan. In light of the Republican leadership's fundamental unseriousness, it's probably for the best that they've temporarily dropped their bills. The reality is that beyond the lobbyist's pork-laden wet dream of an energy bill and an Iraq supplemental that can't help but focus attention on the president's foreign policy failures, there simply is no Republican agenda. The president's State of the Union promises all died on the vine, and the legislative pipeline's been empty for months. Not that there aren't things conservatives would like to achieve. Huddled in their think tanks and magazine offices, the right still holds dear the Reagan/Thatcher dream of rolling back the state. One hears of schemes to end, restructure, cut, or otherwise roll back entitlements. Across-the-board spending freezes, they say, would be nice, but not nearly good enough. They want across-the-board cuts -- nominal cuts, ideally, but real cuts will work. Or better still, targeted cuts -- the elimination of programs. Guys from the Cato Institute recently drew up a list of suggestions and John J. Miller wrote it up in The National Review Online commenting that it would be a good start.
A healthy, sane political movement enjoying a monopoly of political power would be loath to waste a minute dilly-dallying when there's such a grand agenda to achieve. But while Republicans may like their agenda, they love their political power. And as I wrote last week, despite Reagan's political success, "Americans really do want the government to solve their problems, clean their air and water, educate their children, cure their sick, and keep them safe from terrorists and defective products alike." The trouble with the conservative agenda isn't just that it won't do these things, but that conservatives don't think the government should do these things. Most people want government to do more, but Republican leaders want it to do less. As a result, the GOP Congress doesn't really do anything, for bringing bills to the floor raising the specter of sparking a real debate about how to improve America's health and education systems, how to raise wages, how to clean the environment, and all the other things they don't think the government should be doing.
Under the circumstances, talking about whether it would be better to put the Gipper on the dime or on the ten dollar bill looks like an appealing option, and nostalgia for the apparent dynamism of early eighties Republicanism is irresistible. This is the behavior of a political movement that knows it has nothing to offer the American people and no plan for winning them over to its side. As witnessed by the transformation of the Bush campaign website into a shrine to Reagan, conservatives hope that public affection for the late president will somehow save the current one.
They're dreaming. John Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt remained consistently popular through the lowest tides of Democratic electoral fortunes. They were liked, but they were yesterday's men. Reagan got to run against two candidates tainted by the objectively poor state of things in the late 1970s and the wackier schemes of the New Left. Faced with the agenda and record of the Clinton/Gore administration, however, the GOP lost the popular vote three times in a row. Polls indicate that John Kerry will likely make it four for four -- and that if the GOP holds the House they'll have gerrymandering, not popular support, to thank for their win. If Republicans were serious about turning this situation around, they'd get serious about finding solutions to national problems. Instead, they want to rename the Pentagon. It's infuriating, but it's also a bit sad.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.