At a recent debate, every single one of the candidates hoping to be the nest chairman of the Republican National Committee named Ronald Reagan as their favourite Republican president. In one sense this is hardly surprising, given the extent to which the Cult of Reagan - or more precisely, the Cult of the Idea of Reagan - has come to define the Republican party; still, Kevin Drum wonders why no-one dare stick their neck out and admit to admiring some other GOP luminary.
As Kevin notes, it is striking how many Republican presidents have been expelled from the Conservative canon. Eisenhower, Ford and George HW Bush are viewed with suspicion as "Republicans in Name Only," Nixon was a closet liberal too and, like Harding, a crook to boot. Teddy Roosevelt, for all that many Republicans admire his muscular brio, scarcely fits the modern conservative ideal and it remains, sadly, rather infra dig to admit an admiration for Calvin Coolidge. So Reagan it is and must be.
But the Cult of Reagan actually helps explain the mess the Republican movement finds itself in. It used to be that it was the left that specialised in writing dissenters out of the movement; these days, in America at least, that's become a conservative trait. The RNC debate was illuminating in this respect: in addition to passing the Reagan litmus tests candidates were asked how many guns they own. And that was more or less it. Tick those boxes and you're a proper Republican; waver on either question and you're subject to suspicion.
It's this sort of blinkered thinking, this elevation of ideology above the messy business of winning elections that has helped condemn the GOP to minority status. A two party system in a nation of 300m people demands that each party be a broad church. Reagan recognised this; his successors seem to have forgotten it.
Like Thatcherism in Britain, the Reagan revolution began as an internal insurgency that caught the party grandees by surprise. Neither was really supposed to win but desperate times demanded desperate measures. If external crisis and malaise helped them win the leadership against the odds, then subsequently they were fortunate in their enemies: Carter and Callaghan first, then Mondale and Foot. In each case, Thatcher and Reagan were looking to a revived future as their opponents seemed stuck in a dismal, best-forgotten past.
But it is an iron truth of politics that prolonged success sows the seeds of future downfall. Revolutions run out of steam. They cannot be permanent. More damagingly still, what begins as an unorthodox and surprisingly successful approach calcifies into a stubborn orthodoxy that brooks no dissent, even as times and circumstances change. The path to power is built upon compromise and flexibility: Thatcher always knew what she wanted to do, but she was also aware, in her early years, of how limited her room for manoevre was - not least because not everyone in her cabinet was on board. If progress was slower than she liked, it was also steadier than when, after 1987, she reigned supreme and hubris began to take its fatal grip. Similarly, Reagan was a vastly more adaptable President than current conservative folklore might have you believe.
In that sense, then. the troubles of Republicanism now and of the Tories in the last 15 years, were built upon their previous successes. The difficulty is that the second (or third) generation is rarely as talented or adaptable as the trailblazers who won power in the first place. Instead of finding fresh ideas and solutions, they inherit positions and prejudices that, because they worked once before, are assumed to be eternal truths rather than particular answers to particular problems at a particular time.
And because they're seen as eternal truths, any deviation from them is grounds for heresy. Thus, for instance, the Club for Growth would, it sometimes seems, rather see a Democrt in Congress than a "bad" Republican. Fair enough, they've got their wish and the GOP is a minority party in both houses of Congress. It's not all the Club for Growth's fault, of course, but the narrowness of their (fiscal) vision is parallelled by other forces within contemporary conservatism that have left the party older and whiter and more religious than America as a whole. In other words, the GOP is increasingly out of step with a changing America.
Witness, for instance, the party's hostility to gay marriage. That plays well with the base, but it's not something that's likely to endear it to the political future. It's a symbolic issue in some ways, but each year plenty of voters who agree with the GOP die while plenty more who don't are added to the electoral roll.
Style matters too. The Tory position on Europe in the 1990s (and on immigration and crime more recently) was more popular with the electorate than were Labour's policies, but the stridency and, to many, the ugly tone in which the Tories expressed themselves turned many voters off. Similarly, the GOP position on, say, immigration is not without its supporters but the manner in which a position is expressed matters almost as much as the position itself. And the GOP has seemed bitter and parochial - qualities with which the electorate is unlikely to wish to associate itself.
Another example? The Terri Schiavo affair: millions of Americans might have been conflicted as to what they felt in what was a horrid, ugly affair. But they knew they didn't like the spectacle of Congressional Republicans stomping all over the case in hob-nailed boots, abandoning any notion of Congressional restraint, let alone respect for States' Rights and due process. The party that says the other mob always want to interfere abandoned all pretence to principle to interfere itself. Voters can spot hypocrisy and while they may sometimes forgive it if its purusued with a modicum of subtlety or on grounds of expediency, more often they dislike it intensely when it seems a flagrant breach of promise or purpose.
Similarly, there's not too much wrong with wanting to cut taxes, but John McCain's tax plan was absurdly tilted towards the already-wealthy. Yes, the richest contribute an enormous percentage of federal income tax receipts, but "ordinary" working families - those struggling with increasing health insurance bills or rising college costs - could reasonably ask when exactly it was that the Republican party stopped caring about them.
Ironically, George W Bush seemed to recognise this. The talk of "compassionate conservatism" and of an "ownership society" (the latter entirely familiar to Britishers who remember the glory days of Thatcherism) was an effort to recast Republicanism in a fresher, more contemporary mold. Alas, neither really amounted to much, killed by the administration's carelessness, the swamping impact of 9/11 and Karl Rove's determination to bet the farm on militarism and wedge issues - a strategy that could only move the GOP away from the centre-ground. Such a strategy is fine for winning elections, but less useful for governing. Apart from anything else, abandoning the centre gifts an opportunity to the opposition; just as importantly it's only sustainable in good times or when everything goes well. When the worm turns, you find yourself excluded from the centrist-mainstream. Suddenly politics can seem a lonely, scary place.
Thatcher found this out for herself and it took her party 15 years to recover; so too the GOP today. Comparisons between British and American politics are rarely exact of course, but in each case we see (or saw) a narrowing vision of what conservatism ought to be. Instead of an orchestra of conservatism you have a string quartet: still capable of pretty music, of course, but less versatile, less popular and with fewer tunes to play.
But, as I say, the Idea of Reagan has overtaken the Reaganite reality. Consequently Republicans seem to have misconstrued the premises upon which they based their decision to sanctify Reagan in the first-place. The god they worship is not the god who actually existed. The apparent simplicity of the GOP mantra - strong national defence, tax cuts and, er, that's it - becomes a liability when the party faces an intelligent, charismatic, adaptable opponent who seems better prepared to meet the complex challenges of a complex world right now, not the challenges that faced the United States nearly 30 years ago.
All of which is to say, presumptiously for a furriner perhaps, that the GOP has an awful lot of work to do before it's likely to be ready for government again. Of course, in time the Democrats may over-reach themselves too, but no-one should assume that will happen in just four or even eight years.
Because, you know, when the public tires of the old tunes, it's time to learn some new ones. And I rather doubt whether that old-time Reagan religion is going to be enough.
UPDATE: Unseen by me, Mark Thompson was labouring in these same vineyards a couple of days ago.