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Conservatives Could Learn from Reagan, Return to Politics of Ideas

An entirely different electorate — in effect, a different America — turned up at the polls yesterday from those who voted Republicans into control of the House, and administered a sharp mid-term rebuke to the Obama Administration.

Yesterday’s voters were younger, browner, and clearly more liberal.

What motivated them? Equally important, at least to those for whom yesterday represented victory or vindication, what can be done to defy the odds in two years, when Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot and his administration will be subject to the six-year curse, perhaps the most dreaded and unavoidable in our politics?

On the other side of the political divide, Republicans will need time to accept what must be a stinging disappointment. They must come to terms with the rejection of Tea Party candidates like Todd Akin and RichardMourdock. It’s time to confront their demographic decline and reach out to a nation whose minorities ultimately comprise a majority.

They could do worse than to turn to the example of a supposed hero, Ronald Reagan, whose conservatism was always more pragmatic than either friend or foe acknowledged.

Reagan famously observed that any time he could get 80 percent of what he wanted, he was perfectly willing to call it a victory. As president, he was a man who put a smile on the once dour face of American conservatism, an optimist who was also a futurist — in sharp contrast to others in his ranks who loved the past so much they often appeared willing top live in it.

Above all, Reagan believed that politics was about ideas. You could accept or reject his ideas. And one should never overlook the brilliant staging that accompanied his telegenic presidency. But the staging was a sidebar. The ideas came first.

This there was a substance to the Reagan revolution, one that brought about ideological realignment, one still reverberating a dozen years later when Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of “big government” – a nod to the inevitable course of events not unlike Tony Blair’s New Labor, which could never have existed but for Margaret Thatcher.

Are there Republican leaders, thinkers, and doers sufficiently nimble to profit from such lessons? The answer to that question will likely go far toward deciding, not only the outcome of the 2014 elections, but the direction of American conservatism after Barack Obama.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith is a regular contributor to PBS NewsHour.

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