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Conservatism Means Adjusting to Shifting Circumstances

The American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis has written a post with a provocative headline: “Have Reagan-style tax cuts lost their political power?”

The answer, he says, is yes. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the tax issue doesn’t have the old oomph that it used to with voters,” according to Pethokoukis. And he highlights these poll results:

1. In the early 1980s, close to 70 percent of Americans thought their taxes were too high. Today, that number is 50 percent.

2. Middle-class Americans, by 53 percent to 42 percent, think they’re paying their fair share in taxes.

3. Americans rank taxes low on their list of concerns—even below climate change.

4. In the age of online tax preparation, Americans don’t think their tax returns are hard to fill out.

5. Americans think raising the minimum wage and business deregulation are better ways to boost economic growth than cutting tax rates on businesses and the wealthy.

Now, these findings don’t tell us which tax plans might be economically best for this particular moment in time. But I do think this has some bearing on a point I’ve made before and will undoubtedly make in the future: Ronald Reagan’s policies worked fabulously well in the 1980s. But the problems we face are different now than they were then. Conditions have changed, and the task for conservatives is to change–in a responsible, principled way–with them. That is in important respects what it means to be a conservative.

This point should be so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be made, except that for some on the right, to say that what Reagan did nearly 35 years ago may not be what is required today borders on heresy. For others, I suspect what is at play here are certain habits of thought. The tax issue has worked so well for so long for Republicans, they have developed well-worn mental and public policy grooves. And those are difficult to escape from.

It’s isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, to pull back from time to time to re-examine the intellectual and political landscape, to see problems in a somewhat different light, and to periodically think anew and act anew. Reagan himself did precisely that. The Reagan who ran in 1980, embracing supply-side economics, is not identical to the Reagan who ran in 1976, when he focused less on sweeping tax cuts.

Conservatives need to learn from the past but not simply try to replicate it; to understand that our principles applied to new problems will sometimes yield new solutions. To do anything else would not be conservatism but dogmatism.

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