Happy 27th anniversary!  Photographer: Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images
Happy 27th anniversary!  Photographer: Mike Sargent/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party's recurring dilemma -- jump into the deep end of the ideological pool and drown, or just dip your toe in and pretend you're all wet? -- was evident in Representative Eric Cantor's stunning primary loss last week. Some blame Cantor's primary loss to an obscure economics professor on Cantor's inattention to his Virginia district. Others cite immigration or Cantor's establishment posture and Wall Street ties. I blame Ronald Reagan.

Other than tax cuts for people who don't need them, there are only two things that unite the fractious Republican coalition right now: irrational hatred of President Barack Obama and reflexive adoration of Reagan. Neither helps.

Two days after Cantor's defeat, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans' campaign organization, used its blog to celebrate the 27th anniversary of Reagan's speech in Berlin urging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"

It's a fine speech, with historical import. But the party's reliance on an odd-year anniversary (27?) of a distant Reagan highlight to lift its spirits is indicative of its problem. Republicans keep reaching back to Reagan because they have little else to offer. It doesn't help that the most recent Republican president was a failure and the one before him raised taxes, making Republicans unwilling to join in the praise that George H.W. Bush's presidency now receives from historians and Democrats (presuming those are separate categories).

My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru recently confronted a persistent vein of Reagan worship, gently urging conservatives to leave the creaky Reagan nostrums behind and step into the rather different environs of the 21st century. Yet I doubt Ponnuru's invitation will be accepted. The reflex that "Reagan did it, so we should, too" is enormously powerful and enables the party to sidestep difficult realities that strain the conservative coalition. (Although the always interesting Senator Rand Paul has actually criticized Reagan's budget deficits while simultaneously claiming Reagan's mantle on foreign policy. Go figure.)

Imagine if Democrats treated their last 20th century hero, John Kennedy, the way Republicans regard Reagan. The economy boomed under Kennedy and the nation was full of Reagan-like optimism (along with the occasional four-alarm panic over nuclear annihilation) until his assassination. So the obvious thing to do is return the top marginal tax rate to where it was under Kennedy -- 91 percent -- and invest heavily in space exploration, right? That makes sense provided you attribute no power to social or economic change.

The past is a different place. There were about 230 million Americans when Reagan was inaugurated. There are about 315 million now; the U.S. population has grown by more than one third. The nation's Hispanic population has more than tripled in that time, and in Reagan's home state of California whites are no longer a majority. Everything from the demise of unions to the rise of the personal-computer revolution, the commercial Internet and the off-shoring of U.S. manufacturing (see unions, demise of) were largely in the future when Reagan took office.

Reagan nostalgia is also how Republicans fend off the incompatibility of their obsession with low taxes for the wealthy with current realities. Soaring inequality and runaway wealth for the very richest? Cut taxes on the wealthy! Large national debt? Cut taxes on the wealthy! Impending crush of retirees drawing on entitlements? Cut taxes on the wealthy! The top marginal income tax rate was 70 percent when Reagan took office. Today it is 39.6 percent. Why is the policy prescription ever the same?

Ponnuru and his ilk of conservative reformers clearly want to save conservatism. It's a cause every living American should support, if only because having a major political party living in the past is an enormous drag on the American present and future. To find their way to the 21st century, however, Republicans are going to have to break the hold of the Gipper.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.